The area is becoming increasingly important on a geopolitical level and will require satellite connectivity
When it comes to connectivity, the Arctic is often considered something of a nonentity. Only around 4 million people live above the Arctic circle, many of whom are indigenous to the region and have limited demand for advanced connectivity. Couple this with the immense difficulty of deploying infrastructure in such harsh, desolate conditions and it is unsurprising that the region is largely ignored by the industry.
However, that is not to say that the region is without opportunity. Indeed, as the polar ice caps begin to melt, the far north is beginning to grow in interest for national governments, who see the Arctic as a region of geostrategic importance when it comes to resources and geopolitical influence. The Arctic is rapidly developing into a fresh arena for global power and competition, particularly for old rivals in the form of the US and Russia, but also increasingly China, who will assert rights of passage and access to the region.
Thus, quality connectivity will be required after all and, with traditional infrastructure almost impossible for much of the region, governments are looking to satellite operators to plug the gap. For OneWeb, recently rescued from bankruptcy by the UK government and Bharti Global, this could represent an immense opportunity.
Currently, the Arctic region is only served by the Iridium satellite constellation, comprising around 90 satellites launched since the late 1990s. OneWeb, by contrast, already has around 146 satellites in operation following a launch of 36 satellites last week, and is hoping to expand this number to around 650 for global coverage by the end of 2022. However, to effectively connect the Arctic region, OneWeb will require around three more batches of 36 satellites, according to OneWeb’s head of government services Dylan Browne, speaking to SpaceNews.
“Our focus now is Alaska and the Arctic,” he explained, noting that the satellites’ polar orbits meant they were well positioned for the task. “Every time we put a satellite up we get a concentration above the poles which is really serendipitous because from a government and DoD [Department of Defense] perspective, that’s an area of geopolitical interest.”
The growing interest in the region is clear to see, with Browne noting that OneWeb is already in discussion with the Finnish, Norwegian, and Icelandic governments. It is also looking to engage with the Biden administration in the US and is potentially set to compete for DoD contracts with the US’s Space Force.
In addition, OneWeb expects further approaches from industries like oil and gas to be forthcoming as their constellation becomes well established.
The versatility of satellite communications is becoming increasingly apparent when it comes to national security. OneWeb recently signed an agreement with TrustComm Inc. to provide services to US military users, including the US Naval Research Lab, US Army Futures Research Lab and others. Similarly, there is reportedly talk from the UK MD for Defence and Space at Airbus, Richard Franklin, regarding equipping future OneWeb satellites with lasers to help sustain global communications in critical situations where submarine cable infrastructure has been sabotaged.
“There’s a perceived vulnerability of the very high throughput fibre optic cables. How do you create a satellite backbone that could in part create resilience for those? We see that happening through the use of lasers in space,” he said.
With geopolitical tensions around the world creeping higher and higher, the Arctic and indeed space itself, will only increase in importance in the coming years. For OneWeb, creating a competitive position in this market, particularly in the wake of Space X’s Starlink constellation, will be no easy task, but could see them soar from bankruptcy to national importance in just a few short years.
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