OneWeb moving ‘full speed ahead’ to bridge digital divide

OneWeb factory (OneWeb)
OneWeb's facility, opening in 2018, will be capable of producing 15 satellites a week. (OneWeb)

OneWeb is moving “full speed ahead” to bridge the digital divide and bring high-speed internet to some of the most remote corners of the globe, its founder and Executive Chairman Greg Wyler told lawmakers Wednesday. But it's doing so while focusing on sustainable space development without creating a bunch of new space debris.

Wyler was among a group of satellite company leaders who testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology at a hearing examining the state and future of the commercial satellite industry. SpaceX, ViaSat and Intelsat also testified.

“We’re actually asking the question: Why can’t rural be faster?” Wyler said. OneWeb is shooting for 2021 to achieve 2.5 gigabits per second direct to a rural home.

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The company just received permission from the FCC in June to deploy a global network of 720 low-Earth orbit satellites using the Ka (20/30 GHz) and Ku (11/14 GHz) frequency bands to provide global internet connectivity. Earlier this year, the company broke new ground for a satellite manufacturing facility in Exploration Park, Florida, which will be capable of producing 15 satellites per week.

OneWeb has a lot of eyes watching it after raising nearly $2 billion in equity from shareholders including Qualcomm, Hughes, Intelsat, Coca-Cola, Airbus Group, the Virgin Group and SoftBank Group. The Virgin Group’s Sir Richard Branson and Qualcomm Executive Chairman Paul E. Jacobs are on the OneWeb board.

Wyler also talked about his experience in Rwanda, where in 2003 he began connecting schools and rural communities to the internet, bringing the first FTTH and 3G network to the African continent. In 2007, he founded O3b Networks, which stands for the “other 3 billion,” and it has launched 12 satellites. In 2012, he founded OneWeb, which was the first to design a large constellation.

Clearly, managing space debris is a top priority for Wyler, whose written testimony discussed how a single impact in space can cause thousands of debris fragments, fouling orbital altitude ranges for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. To prevent collisions, large scale constellations must have a minimum altitude spacing (MAS) for safety; OneWeb has worked with the aerospace industry, including Boeing, to develop best practices for an appropriate MAS. Wyler says a MAS of 125 kilometers can help isolate the impact of any single system that suffers a collision.

OneWeb also pioneered new standards calling for de-orbit within five years. It also ensured its satellites will disintegrate on re-entry; it does not use materials that would survive de-orbit, and it’s pioneering the use of grappling mechanisms for the removal of satellites.

OneWeb says its rockets are in place and the first rocket launch will be in May of next year. The company expects to start offering service in Alaska in 2019; coverage will be extended to reach more people in 2020.

Asked about pricing, Wyler didn’t give a number but said he sought to make internet access affordable for someone whose income is $2 a day. Rather than say it’s $30 or $50 a month, they’re leaving it up to their local partners to determine what residents in their area can afford. The company is talking to local ISPs in areas typically not covered by the bigger ISPs and a number of MOUs already have been set up.

Wyler said he’s often asked the “why now?” question, as in why this hasn’t been done previously.  “We’ve known the potential, but we haven’t had the technology to accomplish it,” he said. It starts with understanding who needs what and designing for the lowest common denominator. “The key is making these satellites smaller and smaller.”

He also said a lot of resources were put into developing an antenna that would be adaptable for a car, including with LTE and 3G connectivity suitable for passengers and the surrounding area. If the antenna were on a fire truck, for example, it could listen for the signal strength and if cellular connectivity was weak, it would switch to satellite, and when the cellular signal came back stronger, it would flip back. That kind of system would be important for places like Puerto Rico or Florida during times of natural disasters.