OneWeb launches more LEO satellites; will they stay in space longer than Richard Branson?

OneWeb launches more LEO satellites; will they stay in space longer than Richard Branson?

Despite a difficult year, low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite operator OneWeb is still making progress. The company signed a partnership with UK carrier BT and launched 36 additional satellites, bringing the total up to 254, or 40% of OneWeb’s target of 648 satellites in orbit. Consumers in the North of England will be able to access OneWeb’s satellite bandwidth at the end of 2021.

Low Earth orbit satellites hold out the promise of high capacity connectivity anywhere and could play a central role in the growth of edge computing and IoT connectivity services as they are cheaper to launch and operate than geostationary satellites. But early market leader OneWeb struggled and went into bankruptcy in 2020, only emerging after an eyebrow-raising $500mn investment from the UK government and Bharti Global. Since then a revived OneWeb seems to have emerged by quietly continuing to make progress with its rollout, and building relationships with carriers like BT.

Roscosmos, Space Center Vostochny, TsENKI
Photo Credits: Roscosmos, Space Center Vostochny, TsENKI

OneWeb is going to help BT to help improve access to bandwidth in rural areas. The UK lags behind its European peers when it comes to broadband connectivity, and the promise to fix that was in the UK government’s 2019 election manifesto. OneWeb says it will start connecting customers in the North of England at the end of this year.

While OneWeb is looking at a consumer end-user, other LEO companies like Canada’s Telesat have taken more of an enterprise approach, targeting the many oil and gas companies that operate in remote corners of Canada’s vast landmass.

The UK government bail-out of OneWeb last year was slightly controversial, at least in the technology press. It was thought that the stake had been taken as a move to build up a post-Brexit replacement for EU’s Galileo sat-nav system. While we do not fully know the thinking, LEO consumer satellites probably won’t be suitable as a replacement for a sat-nav system, and it seems the motive was more to improve bandwidth coverage across the UK.

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