World getting closer to Internet from the skies
03/06/2021

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Context:

  • Following the successful launch of 36 satellites, 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.

AboutOneWeb:

  • It 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, 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 can provide stronger signals and faster speeds than traditional fixed-satellite systems.
  • As signals travel faster through space than through fibre-optic cables, they also have the potential to rival if not exceed existing ground-based networks.
  • 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, LEO satellite broadband is only preferable in areas that cannot be reached by fibre and spectrum services. OneWeb’s target market will therefore be rural populations and military units operating away from urban areas.

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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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, as there is an increasing need for digital integration in the fields of education and banking considering 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.
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