The additional funds will ensure that OneWeb can fully launch their planned low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation
In March 2020, UK-based satellite broadband player OneWeb filed for bankruptcy, having failed to secure funding for their LEO satellite constellation, citing market turbulence related to the emerging coronavirus pandemic.
In November, however, a miraculous turnaround was on the cards, with the UK government and Bharti Global, run by Indian billionaire Sunil Mittal, both committing $500 million to rescue the company from bankruptcy.
By January 2021, more investment was flowing into the company, with an additional $400 million from Japanese conglomerate SoftBank and Hughes Network System taking the total to around $1.4 billion. By March, the company was once again launching satellites and since then the number has grown to a total of 218 LEO devices.
Today will see the latest batch of devices launched, with 36 more set to join the constellation around 1,200 km above the Earth. With 254 devices activated, OneWeb will be able to begin commercial services for a large portion of the Northern Hemisphere.
“These things don’t happen overnight; there’s been a tremendous amount of hard work taking place over the last few months. But this launch is special,” OneWeb CEO Neil Masterson told the BBC.
“This is the one that gives us connectivity from 50 degrees North latitude to the North Pole, and covers Northern Europe, the UK, Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Iceland.”
However, this is just the start of OneWeb’s ambitious plan for global satellite broadband coverage. The company has said in the past that it is aiming for around 648 satellites in order to provide a reasonable level of global coverage by the end of 2022.
But launching this many satellites does not come cheap, and OneWeb has continued to search for additional investment throughout the first half of this year. Just yesterday, however, the company announced that Bharti Global will commit another $500 million to the project, allowing them to meet their overall investment goal of $2.4 billion.
“This money needs to be in the pipeline, so management is not distracted, and everybody calms down around the table. All shareholders know the money is now available,” Sunil Mittal told the Financial Times, citing OneWeb’s clear commercial opportunity to deliver connectivity to hard-to-reach areas.
Such an opportunity is not lost of the telecoms industry itself. Earlier this week, BT signed a Memorandum of Understanding with OneWeb to help connect the UK’s most rural populations.
“Our ambitious full fibre and mobile commitments have put BT at the forefront of efforts to expand digital connectivity across the UK. It is clear that greater partnership is needed, both with Government and within industry, to ensure connectivity can reach every last corner of the country,” said Philip Jansen, Chief Executive at BT. “Our agreement with OneWeb is an important step to understanding how that goal could be achieved in the future.”
With OneWeb’s investment now secured, further commercial deals seem much more likely.
While OneWeb cannot compete in scale with the likes of SpaceX’s Starlink project, it should be noted that the company already has approval to launch 2,000 satellites, with 1,280 of these being second-generation medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellites, that orbit at around 8,500km. These devices will allow for greater coverage per device but are also larger and more expensive than their LEO alternatives.
What impact is satellite connectivity going to have on the global telecoms industry? Find out from the experts at this year’s Total Telecom Congress