OneWeb is gearing up to provide internet access across the whole planet via a constellation of low-Earth orbiting satellites.
The company, based in White City, London, already has six satellites in orbit and is set to launch between 32-36 per month from December 2019. The first six were placed into orbit in February from the French Guiana Space Centre using a Russian Soyuz-2 ST-B rocket.
The small satellites are being built by OneWeb satellites, a joint venture between Airbus and OneWeb. At the moment, its new facility in Florida is churning out up to two satellites a day with an aim to have a total of 650 satellites in orbit by the service’s commercial launch in Q4 2021.
OneWeb says the 105,500 square foot production facility is helping to revitalise Florida’s Space Coast with 250 new high-tech jobs and 3,000 indirect jobs through the supply chain.
The satellites will operate in circular low Earth orbit, at approximately 750 miles (1,200 km) altitude, and transmitting and receiving in the Ku-band radio frequency spectrum. The link back to the system’s ground stations is via Ka-band.
The company’s aim is to provide internet access to “those that are currently disconnected”. But it has plans to go much further, encompassing aviation, shipping and much more.
Global from day one
Speaking at the 2019 Aviation Festival in London, Ben Griffin, OneWeb’s vice president, commercial aviation said its fast, low-latency service gives it a massive advantage over its competitors.
“From day one we will be global,” Griffin said. “We will provide more capacity than our geostationary-based (Geo) competitors and the low latency connections are ideal for gaming and cloud-based applications.”
Latency is the delay time between a signal being sent and it being received. A typical geo satellite round-trip of nearly 72,000km means a time delay of at least 240 milliseconds.
“Our tests show that OneWeb will have a latency of around 32 milliseconds,” said Griffin. “That opens up a whole new arena of opportunities to the aviation industry, such as crew applications, internet of things (IoT) and telemedicine to name just three.”
The tests earlier this year also showed throughput speeds of up to 400Mbps, so the service is on a par with, or better than, Geo-based inflight connectivity solutions.
“The total network capacity will be one Terra-bit per second,” Griffin said.
OneWeb intends to supply airlines with ESA – electronically-steerable array – antennas from an as yet unnamed supplier.
“ESA antennas are light, compact and have no moving parts,” said Griffin. “As such they have a better MTBF (mean time between failure) performance than existing mechanically-steered antennas used for geostationary satellites.
An ESA antenna works by beam forming – combining one or more wave forms to concentrate the radio energy where it is needed. The beauty is that an ESA array can change the beam’s direction in an instant.
“Airlines really have a headache with mechanically-steered antennas and they’ve been endured as the price to pay for inflight connectivity,” Griffin said.
Low-Earth orbit also brings internet access to the poles. A geo satellite typically runs out of steam at about +/- 85 degrees – it is just too far down on the horizon. He said it should also provide a seamless service with an “unbroken IP session”, which suggests a “make before break” approach to satellite acquisition.
“That is part of the specification of the service and part of the specification of the terminals. It has to be as we will be switching satellites every three minutes,” he said.
Griffin said that OneWeb would be attractive to airlines who he said were currently being left out of the connectivity race and is “opening up markets that are currently underserved”.
“Everyone has very different needs, different budgets and different revenue philosophies and expectations,” he said.
It is also in the process of signing up distribution partners – if you want the service you have to go to one of them, not direct to OneWeb.
“We want partners with good maturity and credibility in the space who can match the innovation we are bringing with equal excitement and energy,” said Griffin.
There had been concerns that the OneWeb satellites could interfere with Ku-band Geo spacecraft. But the company says it has developed a solution called “Progressive Pitch”. This is where the satellites tilt slightly as they approach the equator, to avoid the risk of interference with Geo satellites in higher orbits operating on the same frequency.
Each satellite will have a nominal service life of five years. But what happens when the satellites reach their end of life?
“The goal is to remove a satellite from orbit within five years of the end of its mission, a fraction of the 25-year time frame in existing orbital debris mitigation guidelines,” said Michael Lindsay, head of advanced mission design at OneWeb.