New Space and Tech

OneWeb Begins Rolling Out Global Broadband Service

By Douglas Messier
July 7, 2023
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OneWeb Begins Rolling Out Global Broadband Service
Illustration of a OneWeb satellite.
Image credit: OneWeb.

OneWeb has begun to roll out global satellite broadband service, following a tumultuous decade during which the company went bankrupt, saw its founder depart, announced a merger with telecommunications giant Eutelsat, and had three dozen spacecraft essentially held for ransom on a launch pad in Kazakhstan.

On June 28, the London-based company announced it had expanded its services throughout Europe and most of the United States using its constellation of 636 satellites. The company said it extended service to 37 new countries in Europe, including Austria, Italy, France, and Portugal.

OneWeb also added coverage to the West coast of the United States from California to Washington, the northeast coast from Maine to Virginia, and a stretch of the Midwest. Service has also been enhanced across Canada and maritime regions, the company said.

“This expansion is a significant step in our journey to delivering global commercial service for our customers,” OneWeb Chief Commercial Officer Stephen Beynon said in the company announcement. “We are seeing increased demand for our service as we have expanded coverage and grown our portfolio of user terminals for different markets.”

“Our technical experience in all corners of the globe, as well as the strong relationships we have with existing partners in Alaska, Canada and Europe, means OneWeb is well placed to support customers in these new regions as well as welcoming new partners to activate services for the first time,” Beynon added.

OneWeb installation in Iceland. Image credit: OneWeb.

OneWeb’s rollout of global service follows the completion of the constellation’s deployment earlier this year. On May 20, a SpaceX Falcon 9 launched 15 Gen1 satellites and one advanced Gen2 test satellite. It was the 19th launch of OneWeb satellites over four years.

While Starlink, SpaceX’s rival broadband constellation, provides service directly to customers, OneWeb is a wholesaler that partners with internet service providers and telecommunications companies across the globe. OneWeb had 53 distribution partners at the end of March 2023, according to an investor presentation given by Eutelsat in May. The number of partners is expected to increase to 75 by the end of this year.

Eutelsat and OneWeb announced a merger in July 2022 that valued OneWeb at $3.4 billion. The deal, which is expected to close this summer, will combine Eutelsat’s fleet of geosynchronous communications satellites with OneWeb’s constellation in low Earth orbit.

OneWeb had an order book of $900 million, and a deal pipeline of approximately $3.4 billion, the Eutelsat presentation said. The company had market access and authorizations in 170 countries as of April. OneWeb was operating through 22 ground-based satellite network portals, a number that is expected to increase to 40 by the end of the year.

Although the future looks bright today, the company traveled a long, bumpy road to get to where it is today. At several points, it looked as if the company wouldn’t survive.

A Global Communications Plan

OneWeb was founded by entrepreneur Greg Wyler in 2012 with the goal of providing satellite communications services across the globe. The company hoped to succeed where an earlier venture, named Iridium, had failed in 1999.

In 2015, OneWeb booked 21 flights on Russian Soyuz rockets that would be conducted from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana, and the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia. The commercial Soyuz launches would be conducted through a partnership between Europe’s Arianespace and Russia’s Starsem.

Cosmic Girl with LauncherOne in flight. Image credit: Virgin Galactic.

Later in 2015, OneWeb announced it had received funding from Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. OneWeb booked 39 launches of Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne rocket with an option for 100 additional flights. The air-launched booster would be used to replenish the broadband constellation by launching one or two satellites at a time.

OneWeb would eventually cut the order from 39 launches to four due to what it said were high mission costs. The company was subsequently sued by Virgin Orbit over what it was owed for the canceled flights. (Virgin Galactic spun off its satellite launch business as Virgin Orbit in 2017.)

Virgin Orbit declared bankruptcy in April 2023 and went out of business after selling its assets to five companies. LauncherOne never launched any OneWeb satellites.

A Soyuz ST-B rocket lifts off with six OneWeb satellites aboard on February 27, 2019. Image credit: ESA-CNES-Arianespace/ Optique Video du CSG – S Martin.

A Bump in the Road

On February 27, 2019, a Soyuz ST-B lifted off from the Guiana Space Centre in South America with six test satellites aboard. Two additional Soyuz launches placed 68 satellites into orbit in February and March 2020.

OneWeb then ran out of money. The company declared bankruptcy on March 27, 2020, a mere six days after the most recent launch. At the time, OneWeb had launched only 72 satellites.

Then, the company was offered a lifeline. The United Kingdom’s government and Indian conglomerate Bharti Global each invested $500 million to pull OneWeb out of bankruptcy. Each partner owned 42 percent of the company, with Softbank and other investors owning the remainder.

Wyler was out of the company when OneWeb emerged from bankruptcy in November 2020. OneWeb’s new CEO was Neil Masterson, the former chief operating officer of the Thomson Reuters media company. Bharti Global Founder Sunil Mittal became OneWeb’s chairman.

A Soyuz ST-B rocket lifts off with 36 OneWeb satellites on Feb. 10, 2022. Image credit: ESA-CNES-Arianespace/ Optique Video du CSG – S Martin.

Launches of OneWeb satellites resumed in December 2020 after a nine-month gap. On February 10, 2022, the 13th Soyuz launch brought the number of OneWeb satellites in orbit to 428. A series of launches spaced about one month apart would complete the deployment of the constellation later in the year, and allow OneWeb to begin rolling out global service. The next launch was scheduled for early March.

OneWeb grounded by the Russian invasion

That plan was upended on February 24, 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine. The invasion severely damaged relations with Western nations, which were quick to condemn the attack and impose sanctions.

The invasion resulted in a strange drama that played out at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. A Soyuz-2.1b rocket stood on the launch pad with 36 OneWeb satellites on board. The Russian government demanded that the London-based OneWeb company guarantee the satellites would not be used for military purposes. The British government also would need to divest its shares in the satellite company. Otherwise, Russia declared, there would be no launch.

After OneWeb and the British government refused the demands, the rocket was removed from the launch pad, and the satellites placed into storage. Subsequent efforts by OneWeb to get the satellites returned came to naught. The company took a $229 million write down on the loss of the satellites.

The Soyuz launch partnership between Arianespace and Starsem was suspended indefinitely. OneWeb had to find an alternative way to launch its remaining satellites.

There wasn’t a lot of spare launch capacity in the global market. Arianespace was transitioning from Ariane 5 to the new Ariane 6 rocket. United Launch Alliance was in the midst of a similar transition away from the Atlas V and Delta IV launchers to the Vulcan Centaur. Japan was developing the H3 booster to replace the H-IIA rocket. None of the new rockets had launched yet, and the older boosters were booked up.

China had plenty of launch capacity, but restrictions on the export of OneWeb’s satellites — which are built in Florida — ruled out that option.

LVM III rocket launches 36 OneWeb satellites in March 2023. Image credit: ISRO.

Help came from an unexpected source: SpaceX. Despite operating a rival satellite broadband network, Elon Musk’s company launched 136 OneWeb satellites into orbit on four Falcon 9 rockets between December 2022 and May 2023. A pair of Indian LVM III boosters also launched 72 satellites from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in October 2022 and March 2023.

In the end, it took 19 launches by four different rockets over four years to deploy OneWeb’s 636 satellites. The flights were conducted from seven spaceports in five countries.

Doug Messier

Douglas Messier is the founder of Parabolic Arc. He studied at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and is an alumnus of the International Space University.