The operator suggests that OneWeb’s burgeoning low-Earth orbit (LEO) constellation could be the key to delivering connectivity to businesses beyond their fibre footprint

Yesterday, AT&T announced they had struck a new partnership with LEO satellite operator OneWeb, seeking to use the growing constellation to serve their hard-to-reach business customers. 

Currently, AT&T claims that over 9 million of its business customers are within 1,000 feet of its fibre network, but this nonetheless leaves many remote customers unable to access high-quality connectivity, be that via fibre or mobile. 

In fact, for some of these areas, their access to gigabit-capable fibre or a 5G mobile connection is unlikely to improve any time soon – at least, not with traditional infrastructure. Deploying fibre and mobile networks in remote areas with low population density and difficult geography can be prohibitively expensive for operators, with low cost-effectiveness leaving them a low priority for coverage. 

While operators are, of course, expanding their networks to try and meet the demand of these more rural customers, the reality is that many people will have to wait years for access to the latest connectivity technologies, if in fact they ever receive access at all.

In recent months, however, satellite connectivity is emerging as a promising alternative. Soaring overhead, satellites are ble to negate the difficult geography of remote locations, with recent breakthroughs in the technology itself making them cheaper to launch and operate, as well as being able to deliver, in some cases, a fibre-like experience for customers. 

OneWeb’s burgeoning satellite network, for example, has ambitions of delivering speeds of almost 200 Mbps to customers.

For AT&T, the deal will therefore give their more remote business customers a viable connectivity option, while perhaps allowing them to focus their traditional infrastructure deployments in more profitable areas.

The deal will also bolster AT&T’s mobile backhaul, providing a viable alternative for when fibre is unavailable, such as during natural disasters. 

“Working with OneWeb, we’ll be able to enhance high-speed connectivity in places that we don’t serve today and meet our customers wherever they are,” said Scott Mair, president, network engineering and operations at AT&T. “We’re expanding our network with one more option to help ensure that our business customers have the high-speed, low-latency connectivity they need to thrive as the nation recovers from COVID-19.”

For now, it seems that this partnership will be purely enterprise and government-oriented, with the announcement not mentioning consumer broadband.

Speaking to FierceTelecom, AT&T’s AVP John Wojewoda described the partnership as building a complementary for customers, rather than a replacement from terrestrial connectivity. 

“This is a tool in the toolbox…this doesn’t necessarily fully displace other options, it can be used to complement them,” he said.

This is not the first deal OneWeb has struck to this effect. Back in June, the satellite operator struck a similar deal with BT, aiming to cover rural parts of the UK that the operator would struggle to reach though terrestrial infrastructure deployments. 

According to Sunil Bharti Mittal, the founder of Bharti Airtel and executive chair of OneWeb, the satellite operator is already in discussions with “dozens” of additional telecoms partners regarding similar arrangements.

Currently, around half of OneWeb’s 648-strong constellation is already in orbit, allowing them to launch partial services in the Northern Hemisphere over the next few months. Full commercial launch is expected in 2022.


What impact is satellite connectivity set to have on the wider telecoms industry? Find out from the experts at this year’s Total Telecom Congress

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