OneWeb, the London-based tech company that is trying to develop a global internet service delivered from space, takes a key milestone on Thursday.
The company is launching 36 more satellites, bringing its orbiting mega-constellation to 254.
Although it takes a lot more to complete the network, that number is enough to start providing commercial service to much of the northern hemisphere.
It should start at the end of the year.
“These things don’t happen overnight; there has been a tremendous amount of hard work over the past few months. But this launch is special, ”said Neil Masterson, CEO of OneWeb.
“It is the one that gives us connectivity of 50 degrees north latitude to the North Pole, and covers Northern Europe, the United Kingdom, Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Iceland”, a- he told BBC News.
The last batch of satellites is due to depart from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East.
The Soyuz carrier rocket is scheduled to exit the launch pad precisely at 9:48 a.m. local time (12:48 p.m. GMT; 1:48 p.m. BST). Confirmation of the successful release of all spacecraft, as well as the acquisition of their signals, should be obtained only several hours later.
It has been just over a year since the UK government and Indian conglomerate Bharti Global offer to buy OneWeb out of bankruptcy, each putting $ 500million (£ 400million) into the ailing business.
Since then, other investors have joined the project, convinced of its future viability. The main one of them is the main French satellite telecommunications operator, Eutelsat.
And Bharti’s decision this week to inject an additional $ 500 million into the business Essentially completes the funding needed ($ 2.4 billion) to deploy the rest of the mega-constellation – an orbiting fleet of some 650 spacecraft. This will require 10 more launches beyond Thursday’s mission, but is expected to be done by mid-2022.
The Sunday announcement of the a memorandum of understanding signed between OneWeb and the British telecommunications operator BT. The duo are to explore how they can work together, both in Britain and across the world.
BT could take a very large share of the connectivity capacity out of Britain. Discussions are underway, but the idea is that the telecom giant would deploy OneWeb as part of its broadband solutions.
This would see the so-called “non-spots” – places that have very little or no internet or phone coverage – get a local OneWeb-enabled hub, from which individual consumers could then take a slice of bandwidth.
“Our offer is to provide fiber optic type connectivity where there is no fiber. Our goal is to help companies like BT and other phone companies around the world better serve their customers by filling gaps in their network, or adding robustness to their network, ”said Mr. Masterson.
This was part of the UK government’s goal of taking a stake in OneWeb last year. The ministers are pushing a policy called Project Gigabit, which aims to dramatically improve rural broadband coverage. It is expected that OneWeb will play an important role in this initiative.
OneWeb’s main competitor in the Internet mega-constellation business is Starlink, which is set up by California tech entrepreneur Elon Musk and his rocket company SpaceX.
Starlink now has over 1,500 satellites in orbit and thousands more to follow (its network architecture requires more satellites than OneWeb). However, it is already beta testing its internet connections, and Mr Musk said this week that he expects to have global service by August with up to 500,000 users in 12 months.
OneWeb testing will intensify through the fall with a commercial “go live” above 50 degrees North likely in November.
It must be said that the two competitors follow different business models. While OneWeb will work with partner telecommunications companies to deliver its broadband offering, Starlink sells much of its bandwidth directly to the customer.
What is clear is that these two companies are way ahead of any group of hunters.
The Wannabes include a proposal from Amazon retail giant known as Kuiper and a concept from long-established Canadian satellite telecommunications company Telesat called Lightspeed. Neither of them, however, launched an operational spacecraft.
The European Commission and the Chinese government have also talked about launching Internet constellations, but precise details on what these systems would look like are not yet available.