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Saturday, June 19, 2021

Explained: Why is the world getting closer to Internet from the skies?

Euroconsult, a leading satellite consultancy firm, estimates that 1,250 satellites will be launched annually this decade, with 70% of them for commercial purposes.

Written by Mira Patel , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: June 3, 2021 7:28:08 am
OneWeb is a global communications company that aims to deliver broadband satellite Internet around the world through its fleet of LEO satellites.

Following the successful launch of 36 satellites on May 28, OneWeb’s Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellation reached 218 in-orbit satellites. The company only has one more launch to complete before it obtains the capacity to enable its ‘Five to 50’ service of offering internet connectivity to all regions north of 50 degrees latitude. The Five to 50 service is expected to be switched on by June 2021 with global services powered by 648 satellites available in 2022.

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What is OneWeb?

OneWeb is a global communications company that aims to deliver broadband satellite Internet around the world through its fleet of LEO satellites. In 2010, the company declared bankruptcy but was able to resume operations following an inflow of investment from a consortium consisting of the UK Government, Hughes Communication, Sunil Mittal’s Bharti Global Limited, SoftBank and Eutelsat, a leading European satellite operator.

OneWeb satellites are built at a OneWeb and Airbus joint venture facility in Florida that can produce up to two satellites a day. The launch roll-out of the satellites is facilitated by French company Arianespace using Russian made Soyuz rockets. The company has announced plans to enter the Indian market by 2022.

LEO technology

LEO satellites have been orbiting the planet since the 1990s, providing companies and individuals with various communication services. LEO satellites are positioned around 500km-2000km from earth, compared to stationary orbit satellites which are approximately 36,000km away. Latency, or the time needed for data to be sent and received, is contingent on proximity. As LEO satellites orbit closer to the earth, they are able to provide stronger signals and faster speeds than traditional fixed-satellite systems. Additionally, because signals travel faster through space than through fibre-optic cables, they also have the potential to rival if not exceed existing ground-based networks.

However, LEO satellites travel at a speed of 27,000 kph and complete a full circuit of the planet in 90-120 minutes. As a result, individual satellites can only make direct contact with a land transmitter for a short period of time thus requiring massive LEO satellite fleets and consequently, a significant capital investment. Due to these costs, of the three mediums of Internet – fibre, spectrum and satellite – the latter is the most expensive. In line with that assessment, part-owner of OneWeb, Sunil Mittal, has asserted that LEO satellite broadband is only preferable in areas that cannot be reached by fibre and spectrum services. In his opinion, OneWeb’s target market will therefore be rural populations and military units operating away from urban areas.

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Competitors

OneWeb’s chief competitor is Starlink, a venture led by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Starlink currently has 1,385 satellites in orbit and has already started beta testing in North America and initiating pre-orders in countries like India. However, Starlink’s satellites fly closer to the earth and therefore, the company requires a larger fleet to provide global connectivity than OneWeb.

Rivals, including OneWeb, have complained that at the lower altitude Starlink interferes with their services and increases the risk of collision. Despite their complaints, SpaceX recently won a year-long legal battle to modify its operating licence to fly 2,800 more satellites closer to earth. Starlink services are currently priced at $500 to purchase the antenna and modem with an additional $99 per month in subscription fees. No other company has announced its pricing mechanism thus far, but experts hope that costs will go down with economies of scale.

According to an Asian Development Bank report, authored by John Garrity and Arndt Husar, Starlink is “by far the most advanced in its satellite deployments” with OneWeb coming in second and Canadian company Telesat, a distant third.

Amazon is a newcomer to the space, with its Project Kuiper initiative announced in 2019. Garrity and Husar argue that Starlink has a distinct advantage over its competitors due to the ability of SpaceX to produce its own satellites and reusable rockets. While Amazon also has its own rocket production capability, its Blue Origin rocket is far less developed than SpaceX’s Falcon 9. The Soyuz rockets used by OneWeb are perhaps at the biggest disadvantage with the technology being 50 years old and the costs of launch significantly higher.

Other companies have also ventured into this market, including tech heavyweights Google and Facebook. The former launched its ‘Loon’ project in 2013, using high-altitude balloons to create an aerial wireless network. After testing the service in rural Kenya, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, abandoned the project in 2021. Taking a different track, Facebook attempted to beam internet down to earth using drones. However, after two failed test flights, it also abandoned the project in 2018. It has since announced its intention to launch a new internet service using satellite technology.

Criticisms of LEO satellites

During the days of the Sputnik and Apollo missions, governments dominated and regulated space-based activities. However, today, the balance of power has shifted from countries to companies. Euroconsult, a leading satellite consultancy firm, estimates that 1,250 satellites will be launched annually this decade, with 70% of them for commercial purposes. Even government entities like the US Department of Defence have turned to private providers, entering into a contract to buy satellites from SpaceX. As a result, there are questions related to who regulates these companies, especially given the myriad of nations that contribute to individual projects.

For example, OneWeb is owned by a consortium comprising an Indian businessman, an American company, an intergovernmental organisation formed by 17 European countries, a Japanese investment firm and the UK government. Its satellites are produced in the US, its rockets are made and launched in Russia and its launches are facilitated by a company based out of France. Moreover, it has to receive requisite licences to operate in each country, including, in most cases, from the country’s telecommunications sector and department of space. All those considerations make for a complicated regulatory framework and that’s before going into the question of who dictates activities in space. SpaceX for its part, has addressed that question, stating in its terms of conditions that while the company currently complies with California law, if it extends its reach to Mars, “no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities.”

There are logistical challenges with launching thousands of satellites into space as well. Satellites can sometimes be seen in the night skies which creates difficulties for astronomers as the satellites reflect sunlight to earth, leaving streaks across images. Satellites travelling at a lower orbit can also interrupt the frequency of those orbiting above them, an accusation that has been levelled against Starlink satellites already. Another worry is that there are already almost 1 million objects larger than 1cm in diameter in orbit, a byproduct of decades of space activities. Those objects, colloquially referred to as ‘space junk,’ have the potential to damage spacecrafts or collide with other satellites.

Indian satellite internet market

The acquisition of OneWeb by Bharati Limited could arguably give it a distinct advantage in India and parts of Africa, in which another Bharati company, Airtel, already has a significant presence. Currently, Starlink and OneWeb aim to launch in India by 2022, with Amazon’s Project Kuiper also in talks to receive regulatory approval to operate in the country. Over 70% of rural Indians do not have access to the Internet, a problem that is particularly worrisome given the increasing need for digital integration in the fields of education and banking in light of the pandemic. However, while companies like OneWeb and Starlink have marketed themselves to rural Indian consumers, given their price points (and expected price points in the case of OneWeb,) it is unlikely that most rural Indians will be able to afford their services.

Additionally, according to the ADB report referenced earlier, “telecom operators are already challenging the expected market entry of NGSO (LEO) satellites,” fearing that they could cut into their profits. Barriers to entry and elevated prices will make it difficult for satellite broadband companies to operate in India in the short term but according to several estimates, they will eventually become a major player in the industry.

Mira Patel is an intern with indianexpress.com

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