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OneWeb commercial launch delayed ‘five or six months’

Sunil Bharti Mittal.jpg

BT and other wholesale partners of satellite company OneWeb will start testing services in January, Capacity understands, with commercial services likely to be on offer several months later.

That means OneWeb will miss its original planned commercial service date of October 2021 by at least three months, and more likely five or six. The pandemic has been a major contributor to the delay, because of global supply-chain issues. 

And consumers in the UK and elsewhere will miss the joy of finding OneWeb receivers in their Christmas stockings this weekend, despite the hope expressed earlier this year by the company’s executive chairman, Sunil Bharti Mittal (pictured), in an interview with Capacity.

Mittal gave that over-optimistic October prediction in an interview with Capacity in January 2021, though the company later modified that to “by the end of 2021”. But it has missed that deadline too, especially thanks to the shortage of semiconductor circuits.

Yesterday the company announced its first wholesale partner in the southern hemisphere, Australia’s Vocus. Its CEO Kevin Russell said: “Helping to scale and deliver OneWeb’s low latency and telco-grade satellite systems means we can provide more opportunity for customers to access the high-quality connectivity they need to be successful, particularly in remote and regional operations.”

Vocus and OneWeb said that “first commercial customers are planned for middle of 2022”, later than in those parts of the northern hemisphere north of 50°N, in which Mittal said services would begin in October 2021.

Senior staff at OneWeb and its previously announced wholesale partners – including AT&T, BT and Verizon – are no longer being forthcoming about service dates for that area between 50°N and the North Pole, even though the satellites now offer 100% coverage there.

One BT person said: “It’s a bit too early to say when we will launch services for UK customers, and we’re looking to do some lab and customer trials early next year.” But that person did not define either “looking to do” or “early next year”.

But Capacity understands from sources in the industry that BT is also looking at Starlink, the broadband satellite company owned by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, as an alternative way of delivering fast internet in remote areas.

SpaceX showed its lively interest in the UK market in July 2021 when it was revealed that there is a third ground station operating in UK territory. That is now in operation on the Isle of Man, though not technically part of the UK, in the Irish Sea. This joins two others, in Buckinghamshire and Cornwall, both in England.

Because low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites such as OneWeb’s or Starlink’s are so low, they require ground stations every thousand kilometres or so, with more for resilience.

The UK regulator, Ofcom, put out on 10 December a statement that some in the satellite industry are seeing as significant, largely focused on which of many of the new LEO satellite operators have priority under international rules.

OneWeb is trusting that the fact it had 10% of its satellites in orbit by February 2021 means it has secured its right to frequency slots over such rivals as SpaceX and Amazon’s Kuiper. Capacity understands that both those US rivals lobbied against OneWeb’s prior claim.

The main challenge for OneWeb has not been getting its satellites in orbit – it already has 358 in service, of a planned total of 648 by mid-2022 – but obtaining and delivering receivers.

Telecoms industry insiders have suggested to Capacity that potential wholesale partners have received only tens of prototype receivers to try out in northern Canada, the UK and the US state of Alaska. All of the UK lies north of 50°N latitude, in OneWeb’s initial coverage area.

Delivery, which started in November, has been slowed first by the global lack of semiconductor circuits and second by supply-chain delays caused by the Covid pandemic.

OneWeb’s main terminal partner is South Korean company Intellian, which signed a deal in March 2021. Another potential terminal supplier is Hanwha Systems, which invested US$300 million in the company in July 2021. 

Wholesale partners – which include Alaska Communications and Pacific Dataport as well as AT&T, BT, Verizon and now Vocus – then have to load software on to the terminals before subjecting them to rigorous tests. One person who is aware of the project said it is likely that the software engineers will need to work on the receivers before they can be released to paying customers.

OneWeb has had a 100% successful launch record so far, all by the French company Arianespace on Russian Soyuz rockets – originally designed by the Soviet Union to destroy western Europe and North America in a nuclear war.

Its 11th launch in a row was on 14 October, from the Vostochny cosmodrome in eastern Russia, in what had been an approximately monthly sequence since early 2020.

There was no November launch, because Arianespace took that slot and rocket to launch satellites for the EU’s Galileo positioning service. The next, number 12, is scheduled for 27 December, from Baikonur, a Russian-controlled enclave in Kazakhstan.

There will then be two launches in January and one in February, to take OneWeb to its total complement of 648 active satellites, including in-orbit spares, in its first generation. Two of those planned 2022 launches are from Kourou, in French Guiana in South America, and one is from Baikonur.

Meanwhile OneWeb has raised $2.7 billion from shareholders since it was rescued from bankruptcy by Mittal’s Bharti Global, part of the group that owns Bharti Airtel, and the UK government in 2020. They put an initial $500 million each into a successor company. The original OneWeb, which blamed Covid for its bankruptcy, pre-paid for all satellites and launches, leaving the successor free to spend its money elsewhere.

Since then Bharti has doubled its stake to $1 billion and others have come into the list of shareholders, including Eutelsat, which is now the second biggest, outstripping the UK government, along with Softbank, Hughes – part of EchoStar – and Hanwha.

Apart from continuing operations, that money is largely earmarked for what Mittal told Capacity back in January 2021 was “gen two” – the second generation of satellites, due to be in service in 2024-25.

OneWeb also plans that the second generation will have the ability to run positioning services, in competition with the US GPS, Europe’s Galileo and Russia’s Glonass. It was that ability, still a few years away from reality, that the supporters of OneWeb used to promote the project to sceptical UK politicians and the political establishment in 2020.

But in the same interview Mittal also said: “Let’s say before Christmas this year the UK will have them in their homes,” he added. Four days before Christmas, that’s not happening.

 

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