OneWeb breaks ground on new satellite facility, gears up for 5G

OneWeb plant
OneWeb Satellites is building a satellite manufacturing facility designed to produce 15 satellites per week. Image: OneWeb

OneWeb Satellites officially  officially broke ground on a new $85 million satellite manufacturing facility in Exploration Park, Florida, on Thursday, but it’s what OneWeb plans to do with those satellites that should pique the interest of wireless operators.

The company's goal of launching hundreds of satellites is part of its vision to connect the 4 billion people who are under-served or unconnected around the world. While it does that, it’s also going to be in a position to supply backhaul for millions of small cells that are part of the cellular industry’s densification plans leading up to and in 5G.

It could also become cellular operators’ go-to solution in rural areas in the U.S. and elsewhere where the economics just haven’t penciled out in terms of providing coverage, according to OneWeb Founder and Executive Chairman Greg Wyler.

OneWeb Satellites is the joint venture between OneWeb, the satellite-based internet provider, and Airbus, the world’s second largest space company. The first order at the Florida facility will include the production of 900 communications satellites for OneWeb’s low Earth orbit (LEO) constellation.

OneWeb could have modified an existing structure, but building a new factory gives it a chance to design it from the ground up specifically for what it’s doing. The satellites built in the plant will be used primarily by OneWeb for its global internet services, but satellites also will be available for other commercial satellite operators and government customers globally as early as 2018. 

“We actually allow vendors to work within the facility and have their own residency,” giving the company a much tighter relationship with its vendors, which are able to test and validate pre-production components, according to Wyler.

Greg Wyler
Greg Wyler

The company, whose board includes the Virgin Group’s Sir Richard Branson and Qualcomm Executive Chairman Paul E. Jacobs, is very much grounded in the business and technology of cellular—and Wyler, who founded O3b Networks in 2007, described the company’s DNA as a mix of talent from the microprocessor, computer, cellular, battery and even solar panel industries. Satellites just happen to be the delivery mechanism.

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During Mobile World Congress 2017, Intelsat and OneWeb announced their merger and a new cash infusion from SoftBank. The combined entity promises to deliver a robust technology roadmap for customers in wireless, mobility and government sectors, as well as media and enterprise segments.

Of course, telecom operators are one of OneWeb’s primary customer bases, and OneWeb has designed its systems to be fully compatible and integrated with the cellular networks, including as they move to 5G.  

“We designed our system so our usage of the new Ka band is totally compatible with the mobile industry’s needs,” Wyler told FierceWirelessTech. “We’re not a satellite company. We are a communications company,” which happens to have satellites in its system.

As 5G standards get hammered out, one of the first questions is: Can a satellite be part of a 5G network?

“The answer is, for OneWeb, yes,” he said. “We have tested and validated our latency” and signaling path to make sure it will operate seamlessly between the core network and the eNodeB, an element of the LTE RAN. “The core network doesn’t know it’s going over OneWeb, a microwave on the ground, fiber on the ground” or a cable. “It’s all the same to the core network. We’re just a microwave repeater that happens to be a little bit higher in elevation.”

The second question is whether the system can be easily deployed, which will be crucial in 5G.

“We will have a very simple deployment for backhaul for 5G,” he said. That is key because if an operator wants to roll out a million small cells, for instance, it’s going to be a challenge currently to feed capacity to all those cells.

OneWeb is also an option for wireless operators that want to fill in dead spots in coverage, which, despite massive infrastructure rollouts, still happen, especially in rural areas.

“There are many dark spots in the U.S.,” and OneWeb will enable coverage at an extremely low cost, which makes rollout easier and less expensive for mobile operators, he said, noting that the U.S. is certainly a market where OneWeb’s coverage will be relevant.  

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The unique way in which OneWeb is designing its satellites—each of which will weigh only about 150 kilograms—means it will actually be affordable, something that has been elusive for much of the satellite industry. As for the latency, which is a big deal in 5G, OneWeb’s satellites will have very high throughput, but because they’re 30 times closer to earth than GEO satellites, they'll have dramatically lower latency, according to Wyler.

OneWeb’s investor base includes Qualcomm, SoftBank, EchoStar and Intelsat—all of which have a good understanding of spectrum. But Wyler said OneWeb is so far removed from the traditional satellite industry that it’s not even part of the spectrum debates going on between the terrestrial mobile and satellite industries as part of the FCC’s Spectrum Frontiers proceeding.  

While Qualcomm is an investor, it’s also been working closely with OneWeb, supplying what Wyler considers a chipset that’s truly revolutionary for the satellite industry and very much a part of how it’s going to be able to make the whole system work affordably. Wyler has said previously that the hardest part of OneWeb’s system is done by Qualcomm on the chipset side.