With its Never-ending Problems, Can OneWeb Still Challenge Starlink?

The heavily-funded OneWeb had plans to launch 4X of the promised satellites into a constellation. However, the company declared bankruptcy on March 21, 2020, shortly after its third launch of 34 satellites
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In May 2019, SpaceX launched the first 60 satellites – all part of the Starlink constellation – into space. And while Starlink is often considered the company that brought internet via space, there was a company already working in that direction. Just two months prior to the aforementioned launch, OneWeb had launched six satellites, aiming to become a high-speed satellite network provider.  

OneWeb – a joint venture between Qualcomm, Hughes Network Systems, Airbus Group, and Virgin Group – aims to connect people via high-speed and reliable low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites and terrestrial networks. So far, the company has launched a constellation of 462 satellites in 14 launches and plans to launch 648 satellites in all. 

History of satellite-based broadband service

In the 1990s, two companies, Teledesic (backed by Bill Gates) and Skybridge, were working on providing satellite-based broadband service. However, they couldn’t transition into a profitable venture. While Teledesic (backed by Bill Gates) and Skybridge abandoned its plan of ‘Internet in the sky’, Skybridge’s assets were later acquired by OneWeb (previously known as WorldVu). 

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The heavily-funded OneWeb had plans to launch 4X of the promised satellites into a constellation. By 2017, when OneWeb had a total funding of $1.7 billion, the company was aiming to launch around two thousand satellites into space. Greg Wyler, then chairman and founder of OneWeb, had made huge claims regarding the launch, “We are not talking about it yet, but we will start talking about it soon. You will hear about some great launch scale step function changes to our plans and improvements.”

OneWeb, however, declared bankruptcy on March 21, 2020, shortly after its third launch of 34 satellites, as they were unable to secure funding because of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, the company had to fire about 85% of its employees (531 in total).

Enter the Mittals and dependency on Russia

At the time, Bharti Global and the UK government came together to revive the company through a funding of $500 million each. Today, the company has over $1.7 billion funds, around 80% of its previously promised $2.2 billion. 

With additional financing, satellite launches increased in frequency to the point that one was launched every month in 2021. OneWeb’s dependence on Roscosmos, a Russian space agency, was the issue, though. With the exception of the recently launched ones, Roscosomos launched every satellite of OneWeb. 

And while everything was going well, things took a drastic turn with geopolitical tensions. During the Russia-Ukraine war, a video surfaced online where Russians could be seen removing the national flags of countries like the USA, the UK and Japan. The rocket, which was set to carry OneWeb satellites to space, couldn’t take off due to growing tensions between western countries and Russia. 

OneWeb recorded a loss of $229.2 million in its annual report, mostly as a result of a delayed planned launch on March 4, 2022, losing satellites to Russia that were not returned to the group, and impairment of a portion of the organisation’s prepaid launch insurance. 

At last, up in space 

After the growing uncertainty from Roscosmos and the company’s delayed launches, OneWeb, led by Sunil Mittal from Bharti Airtel, decided to move on to other solutions in the market, i.e., SpaceX and NewSpace India Limited. 

OneWeb’s 14th launch through NewSpace India Limited, the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), brings the constellation’s total number of satellites to 462. This launch represents more than 70% of the 648 LEO satellites that are expected to be deployed globally to provide high-speed, low-latency connectivity. OneWeb is still on target to activate global coverage in 2023 with just four more launches, and its connectivity solutions are now operational in areas north of 50 degrees latitude.

According to Somanath S, chairman, ISRO and secretary, Department of Space, the occasion is extremely momentous for the nation and the Indian Space Program. According to him, this is the first commercial launch of LVM3 to carry the heaviest payload into low-Earth orbit. “The LVM3 was conceived primarily for launching geostationary satellites with a payload capacity of 4T, which can be used for launching 6T payloads for LEO,” he concluded in the press release. 

The next three from OneWeb, ironically, are to be launched by its competitor SpaceX and the last one again by NewSpace India Limited. 

And while OneWeb is optimistic about reaching its target of 648 satellites by 2023, the problems, however, are not ceasing anytime soon. As per reports, the government of India is planning to auction the satellite spectrums rather than allocating them. “It doesn’t make sense for spectrum for satellite use to be auctioned, because if one operator buys it, no one else can access it, and the satellite industry will not grow in India, hindering the goal of rural broadband connectivity,” says Bharat Bhatia, president of the non-profit telecom industry body ITU-APT Foundation of India.

The current chairman of OneWeb, Sunil Mittal, claims that the satellite spectrums cannot be auctioned in a manner similar to what was done with terrestrial spectrums since the business case is so weak. “You cannot have 1000 Mhz at Rs 7,000 crore to serve two 15- acre spots in the country,” he remarked.

Lokesh Choudhary
Tech-savvy storyteller with a knack for uncovering AI's hidden gems and dodging its potential pitfalls. 'Navigating the world of tech', one story at a time. You can reach me at: lokesh.choudhary@analyticsindiamag.com.

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