OneWeb’s launched the final 36 satellites of its initial 616-satellite “constellation” over the weekend, allowing the UK-backed, London-based organisation to rival Elon Musk’s Starlink in offering global broadband coverage.
The 36 spacecraft went up on an Indian LVM3 rocket from the Sriharikota spaceport in Andhra Pradesh. Less than three years ago, the UK government decided to buy OneWeb out of bankruptcy.
“It’s the fruition of an enormous amount of hard work, and obviously we’ve been through some geopolitical issues over the last year or so, and the team has proven to be extremely resilient and caught up”, Chief Executive Officer Neil Masterson said in an interview ahead of the launch.
Masterson explained that OneWeb currently has enough moving spacecraft in orbit to provide broadband to businesses and government clients in the lower 48 US states in May and eventually provide global coverage by the end of 2023.
The BBC reports that it will take some months for the latest batch of satellites to be tested and to get into the right part of the sky (at an altitude of 1,200km), but when they are in position OneWeb will have the facility to deliver a global communications service.
According to TechCrunch, the company declared bankruptcy in March 2020 because Covid-19’s economic upheaval prevented it from accessing credit markets. The UK government and Indian telecom mogul Sunil Mittal’s Bharti Group intervened to save the company. Since then, it has received funding from the SoftBank Group, the US company Hughes Satellite Systems, and the South Korean corporation Hanwha Systems.
French satellite firm Eutelsat, another major shareholder in the launch, agreed to merge with the company last July, pending regulatory clearances and a shareholder vote. The group is competing for a role in a multi-billion euro European Union satellite project dubbed IRIS.
Masterson disclosed that OneWeb has $900 million in contracted revenues and envisions breaking even by 2025. “OneWeb took off more sophisticated wave of several hundred extra satellites, which could cost as much as $4 billion (roughly Rs. 32,900 crore) and be operational by 2028, and for this reason, it expects to disseminate information to potential “Gen 2” suppliers in the second quarter”, Masterson added.
The race in space
The latest launch is a breakthrough in the race to enrich the earth with several low-flying spacecraft to provide internet access to remote areas worldwide.
OneWeb becomes the second company to complete the constellation after Starlink, the fleet operated and launched by billionaire Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies, which has over 3,000 satellites in orbit.
Masterson downplayed competition with SpaceX explaining that OneWeb focuses on business and government clients who provide internet services for the common man while Musk’s company targets consumers directly. He also used SpaceX; after a launch with France’s Arianespace was cancelled due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago, OneWeb used Musk’s rockets to launch its satellites.
The first six satellites of OneWeb were launched on February 27, 2019. The first significant batch of 34 satellites was launched on 6th February 2020, followed by another 34 on 21st March 2020. By 10th January 2023, it also announced the successful deployment of 40 satellites launched by SpaceX from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
OneWeb costs $12.95 monthly for unlimited data, with upload speeds ranging from 30-70 Mbps and download speeds ranging from 150 Mbps. Users of the OneWeb plan could connect to the internet from anywhere in their home as long as Wi-Fi is available.
According to the company’s most recent annual report, OneWeb is a strategic initiative of the UK government that is prepared to service the US defence, including classified material, and would “allow Five Eyes nations” to overcome security and connectivity difficulties.
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