OneWeb F6 and the rise of LEO Internet

A new set of satellite Internet providers are taking to the skies to offer high-speed access, from the farthest reaches of the seven continents, to that last batch of Minnesota households just past the end of the fiber network. On Wednesday 27 February 2019, just after 2137 UT, OneWeb launched its first six satellites into space from Sinnamary, French Guiana on Arianespace Soyuz mission VS21, following hot on the heels of January launches from Iridium and Telesat.

Soyuz flight VS21 carries OneWeb F6 to orbit, 27 February 2019 (Arianespace)

Making history

The OneWeb F6 satellites herald a new kind of LEO Satellite Internet, which will use large constellations to provide 100% coverage of the Earth’s surface, with high speed and low latency. Compared with older satellite options, it’s a change as dramatic as the shift from dialup to broadband.

These new options promise a user experience almost like surfing the web on a mobile phone, but with a little extra equipment. No protractor required to install, just point a beach-ball-sized antenna at the sky, then plug in.

There are no shortage of potential applications for global, always-on network connectivity, but OneWeb has included something that has often been missing from the equation – a public service mission. The company has an advertised goal to connect schools to the Internet, demonstrating this through an outreach program where each of its first six satellites was named by students at six remote schools.

Building for speed

To follow through on its goals, OneWeb will first need to build out its network. In the coming weeks, the F6 satellites will prove the system’s basic capabilities: ground-station-to-satellite, satellite-to-satellite, and linking two ground stations through the network.

When it comes to Internet, it’s all about speed, and the largest factor in keeping speeds high is using a lower orbit. When the satellites are close to the Earth, higher data rates are possible, while less wait time is needed while the signals to travel up and down. But that’s not the only problem to solve. Because any single satellite in low orbit can only see a small area of the Earth’s surface, you need many satellites in a constellation, all with the ability to talk with each other.

With Globalstar or Iridium, user communications must often travel a large distance around the Earth to a few places where the satellite network connects to the Internet. As the signal passes from satellite to satellite, each step is an extra delay. To reduce this problem, the new constellations will build more ground stations in more places.

Finding a market

Though it won’t soon be cheaper than all-you-can-eat data plans on cable or fiber, or even land-based 4G/5G mobile phone services, LEO Satellite Internet will be a viable option for users with high mobility – like airlines and cruise ships, or for users in very remote areas, whether the satellite replaces the “last mile” – hard-to-reach parts of otherwise well-served regions – or the “first mile” – unserved areas like the middle of deserts, mountain ranges, or oceans.

A space-based business model still needs a huge initial investment in hardware. OneWeb has raised billions of dollars from a variety of sources, most notably Japanese telecom giant SoftBank. The largest factor in the success or failure of a new enterprise remains supply and demand. A fair amount of OneWeb’s capacity has been pre-booked by customers, and while the final constellation of 648 is slightly smaller than initially planned, the company and its satellite division (a joint venture with Airbus) can still build and launch up to about 900 first-generation satellites, if demand is strong enough.

External pressures

OneWeb faces unique market dynamics. SpaceX has its own rockets, and wants to build the much more ambitious Starlink constellation. Incumbent satcom providers like Telesat are also moving into LEO from a solid customer base in GEO. Each new alternative provides an incentive to lower the price of services and equipment. Customers may not be willing to pay $300 for a satellite modem and ~$100 per month indefinitely.

A Comparison of North America’s Satellite Internet options

Satellite NetworkStatusSatsLatencyBandwidth
Starlinkground test4425~50+ms~1000 mbps
OneWebflight test648~50+ms25/3 mbps
Telesat LEOflight test122~50+ms~12 mbps
Iridium NEXTactive66~60+ms1.4 mbps
Globalstaractive24~60+ms64 kbps
o3b Networksactive17~125ms~155 mbps
ViaSat / Xplornetactive4~700ms30 mbps
HughesNet / Galaxyactive1700ms25/3 mbps
Inmarsatactive8~700ms256 kbps

Another factor will be international cooperation, or lack thereof. Global providers will need to address 193 different approaches to Internet regulation. Though willing to sell rockets to launch the service, Russia has objected to OneWeb being offered in its territory. Other countries that censor or sin-tax the Internet may follow suit.

The density and bandwidth of the new constellations will also be a whole new frontier in the effort to keep data networks safe and secure. While something in your basement or server cabinet can be unplugged, reset, or replaced, there may be no easy fix if space-based routers get compromised. Dr. Jeremy Straub, the Associate Director of the Institute for Cyber Security Education and Research at North Dakota State University, says that “With a spacecraft, if you lose the capability to connect to it to an adversary because they’re taking it over, or some phenomenon has made it so nobody can connect to it, that may be the end of the asset, or the asset may be permanently under your adversary’s control, if you don’t have another way of accessing it.”

“Ready for Primetime”

Straub is impressed by the entrepreneurship on display throughout the space industry, and where it may go next. “I think what they’re doing with all of these different near earth orbit providers, particularly the ones that are doing the constellations of small satellites, it’s really an incredible use of a very young technology.” It used to take decades to develop space technology “ready for primetime”. Now, development cycles can be completed in just a few years, like a new cell phone, or any other electronic product.

“For companies like OneWeb, or some of the other ones that are doing the Remote Sensing from small satellites in Low Earth Orbit as well, to actually be able to get to transition so quickly from design to operating a business using the technology, I think it’s really a cool thing and it shows you how far we’ve come with the small satellite industry that people are able to do this now, so quickly.”