OneWeb signs $200m deal to reach 1bn people in Middle East

OneWeb signs $200m deal to reach 1bn people in Middle East and Africa

27 October 2021 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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Satellite company OneWeb is moving into Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East and east Africa following a deal with a local company.

The London-based operator is setting up a joint venture with Riyadh-based Neom Tech and Digital to bring high-speed satellite connectivity to potentially a billion people in Saudi Arabia, the wider Middle East and neighbouring east African countries.

They will use OneWeb’s low Earth orbit (LEO) network, of which 358 of a total 648 satellites have so far been put into operation.

Neom CEO Joseph Bradley (pictured) said: “We aim to connect 100% of Neom’s territory yet we must also preserve the natural environment. This is what drives us to innovate with partners such as OneWeb to create sustainable ways to accelerate human progress. The partnership has the potential to transform the way governments, businesses and communities connect to the internet.”

OneWeb and Neom said they expect to complete ground infrastructure in the region in 2022. Neom and the new joint venture said they “will have exclusive rights to distribute OneWeb services in its target regions for seven years from the initiation of the LEO satellite network, which is expected to commence in 2023”.

This appears to be OneWeb’s existing LEO network, which is likely to be completely in service in 2022. OneWeb has long-term plans for a second generation of satellites, but it has yet to confirm timing and technical details.

Neom and OneWeb said their plans will “transform businesses and rural communities in the region where access to fibre-like internet was previously unimaginable. The agreement also includes a long-term strategic partnership regarding research and development of future connectivity systems.”

The Saudi Arabia deal comes at the same time as OneWeb and Tampnet have signed an agreement to develop offshore connectivity. Tampnet operates in the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico oil and gas fields.

In Riyadh, Bradley – a former AT&T and Cisco executive in the US – signed the deal in the presence of OneWeb CEO Neil Masterson as well as Saudi Arabia and UK government officials and OneWeb executive chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal. His Bharti empire is the biggest investor in OneWeb, and the UK government also has a US$500 million stake.

Abdullah Alswaha, Saudi Arabia’s minister for communications and information technology, described the deal as “ground-breaking” and said: “By working together, we will bring digital connectivity to a region of more than a billion people, opening access to life-changing opportunities in education, healthcare and the job market. We are one step closer to ensuring that no child is left on the wrong side of the digital divide.”

Mittal said: “This agreement … exemplifies the model through which OneWeb’s services will reach unconnected or poorly connected regions – through cooperation with international governments and local partners.”