OneWeb is talking a big game in satellite-delivered internet access—almost the size of this planet, to be more precise.
“Wherever you are, we’ll cover you,” CEO Adrián Steckel said in a panel at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon on Tuesday.
OneWeb plans to surpass existing satellite-broadband firms by flying below them and in vastly larger numbers. Instead of rocketing a few large satellites all the way to geostationary Earth orbit (GEO)—22,236 miles up, at which point the satellite’s orbital period keeps it locked above one point on the equator—the company will launch hundreds of satellites in much lower orbits.
Placing that constellation, 650 satellites at first and eventually 1,980, only 745 miles up could solve two problems. One, their overlapping orbits allow for worldwide coverage, while geostationary satellites start to fall below the horizon at the most northern and southern latitudes.
“The only spot in the world that we don’t have planned for coverage is Antarctica,” Steckel said—and then added that the company was researching options to fix that.
The second advantage of OneWeb’s approach is that its lower orbit zaps out most of the painful latency inflicted by the 44,000 miles and change that data must take going to and from a geostationary satellite.
In a July test, OneWeb reported download speeds of 400-Mbps to a Seoul location as it automatically switched from satellite to satellite—with latency under 40 milliseconds, versus 600 milliseconds and up for GEO satellite.
That would make this service competitive with many forms of wired and wireless broadband, even if that responsiveness figure can’t match the sub-10-ms latency figures touted for the fastest but shortest-range version of 5G wireless.
OneWeb sees that as less a bug than business opportunity, pitching its constellation-to-be as a worldwide solution for 5G backhaul, connecting 5G networks in less-dense markets with those elsewhere.
In his talk onstage with freelance journalist Kit Eaton, Steckel said direct subscribers to OneWeb would need a proprietary receiver with a flat-panel antenna pointing straight up. He didn’t discuss pricing beyond saying that first-world customers would pay first-world prices while others would not.
“Something will be more expensive in the United States than it will be in Mexico,” he said of current customer-goods pricing. “The same is true for us.”
The other price for this closer-to-home bandwidth will be a great many more launches after the six-satellite deployment following its March debut liftoff on a Russian Soyuz rocket launched from the European Space Agency’s Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana.
Throughout his Summit session, Steckel emphasized his firm’s “responsible space” approach to ensure that a constellation of satellites won’t wind up as a cloud of space junk that could endanger other satellites and compound the space-debris problem.
Saying “they’re engineered to disintegrate,” Steckel said OneWeb’s small satellites include enough fuel to ensure an orderly de-orbit and fiery demise in Earth’s atmosphere after a service life he put at seven to 10 years.
Steckel added that just in case, each of these satellites—which look like “sort of a square fridge with arms”—features a grapple for orbital repair or salvage.
Throughout, Steckel struck a remarkably accepting tone of government rules for a startup with ambitions of disrupting entrenched competitors. Although he avoided mentioning SpaceX or Elon Musk in any sort of comparison, it was hard to not to hear a distinct contrast to Musk’s plans to launch a full 7,518 broadband-distributing satellites in a lower orbit than OneWeb’s.
“Our industry needs more regulation and more coordination,” he said. “Industry has a way of getting ahead of itself and then getting regulated when there are problems.”
(Disclosure: I’m moderating two panels at Web Summit, in return for which the organizers are covering my airfare and lodging.)