Satellites prepare to connect the world 

Image credit: OneWeb 

As the cost of being on the wrong side of the “digital divide” increases all of the time, connecting the 45 per cent of the world’s population who still have no internet access becomes an ever more important public policy challenge. 

As you might expect, many of the unconnected are in rural areas, often in developing countries, and many will have few connectivity options. For such consumers to be unconnected can have an impact few in developed countries readily appreciate because limited physical infrastructure has been a spur for the launch of innovative digital services. Africa is now a world leader in digital-first retail banking and money transfer services, and Uber’s proposition has been adapted to share farm machinery amongst smallholders. But if you have no connectivity, such innovation is denied to you. 

As so often, technology is providing a solution – in this case, satellite. 

Of course, satellite communications aren’t new. What is new is that satellites used to be an expensive and bespoke purchase, the size of a truck, usually launched one at a time, and offering services which were far costlier than any fixed or mobile connection would have been (where they were available) – and with high latency (delay) to boot. And as each satellite cost so much, it usually had a lifespan of about 15 years to make the investment back – unfortunately, that means that there are satellites still in use which were launched before the iPhone. 

Now a range of companies have proposed to harness the latest satellite technology, where satellites the size of dishwashers are manufactured, employing many off-the-shelf components, on a production line and launched several at a time. 

Deploying cheaper satellites, quicker to orbit, makes a huge difference to cost - as does having those satellites work together in a Low Earth Orbit (about 2000km up) constellation. That means that instead of a satellite being in geostationary orbit, parked above (and serving) just one patch of the world’s surface, tomorrow’s constellations will deploy hundreds or thousands of small satellites much closer to the Earth, continually crisscrossing the skies, their users being passed from one satellite to another seamlessly. This enables everyone on the planet to be cost-effectively offered connectivity, with greatly reduced latency, and satellites will be retired – and replaced with the latest technology – far more frequently. 

Foremost amongst companies planning to launch constellations is British-based, and regulated, OneWeb, whose ambitious plans to connect the world has recently taken two crucial steps forwards. 

Firstly, on 27 February a Russian rocket lifted off from South America to deliver six French-built satellites, simultaneously putting into Low Earth Orbit the first components of the constellation and securing the essential spectrum previously allotted to OneWeb. 

Secondly, just yesterday OneWeb announced that they’d secured their largest fundraising round to date, raising $1.25bn in additional capital and taking total funds raised to $3.4bn. This is a reminder of the huge sums necessary to be able to offer 24/7 connectivity to everyone on the planet. 

Following completion this Spring of on-orbit testing for these first six satellites, later this year OneWeb expects to start launching about 30 satellites at a time every three to four weeks. Such an astonishing rate of deployment will depend upon the joint venture Florida factory which OneWeb has with Airbus delivering the projected 350-400 satellites annually. The first Florida-built satellites should be delivered to OneWeb toward the end of the third quarter. 

When complete the constellation should initially comprise 648 satellites (600 operational and 48 spares), with several hundred more expected to follow later to add to coverage. After testing, OneWeb is expected to offer global, 24/7 coverage to customers from 2021. 

This is a huge deal, and with other companies planning similar constellations, Satellite is truly preparing to connect the world. One can only imagine what innovation, productivity and inclusion will result from securing connectivity for all. 

Of course, global launch capacity may struggle to cope with all of the planned satellites, but that is why initiatives are underway to make available additional launch capacity, optimised for batches of small satellites. That is the objective of the UK Space Agency’s LaunchUK project which last year selected the A’Mhoine peninsula in coastal Sutherland in Scotland as the site of the UK’s first spaceport. 

Image credit: OneWeb

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