SpaceX Starlink vs. OneWeb: Starlink boasts a beta as OneWeb's constellation grows

Satellite traffic in low-Earth orbit is on the rise as companies race to deliver internet connectivity from the final frontier. OneWeb plans to launch thousands of satellites to compete.

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Image: iStock/nicoelnino

A number of companies are planning to deliver internet access via orbiting satellite fleets. E-commerce giant, Amazon, has its own program called Project Kuiper and SpaceX Starlink, helmed by CEO Elon Musk, is offering a "better than nothing" beta version of its service. The company OneWeb is also carving out its own slice in the burgeoning satellite internet market space as competition heats up in low-Earth orbit.

History: Chapter 11 and low-Earth orbit

In November 2020, OneWeb announced that it had emerged from Chapter 11 infused with $1 billion in new equity from a "consortium" of the U.K. government and recommenced satellite delivery launches with a new CEO.

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Bill Menezes, director analyst with Gartner Research, said OneWeb was not "the first satellite company to go through Chapter 11" explaining that Intelsat, Iridium, Speedcast and Satmex among others, reorganized via this process as many of these companies have "large debt burdens incurred to launch and expand their services."

In December, OneWeb confirmed the launch of 36 new satellites bringing the orbiting constellation to 110 while maintaining the pace to "launch regional commercial service in 2021 and global service in 2022," the company said.

In March, the company launched 36 new satellites to low-Earth orbit (LEO), bringing the constellation total to nearly 150 satellites, and said it was "on track" to "cover 50 degrees Latitude and above" by the end of 2021. (For comparison sake, SpaceX has launched more than 1,200 Starlink satellites.)

This Northern Hemisphere coverage area, which includes the United Kingdom, Alaska, Northern Europe, Iceland, Greenland the Arctic Seas and Canada, would be "switched on" by year's end, the company said.

"The next launch in the series is scheduled for the end of April, as we continue our drive towards commercial service this year. OneWeb is rising to the challenge of our mission to provide connectivity to everyone, everywhere, all the time," said Neil Masterson, OneWeb CEO.

Market competition: Connecting the maritime industry

In recent weeks, OneWeb has penned blog posts about providing connectivity across the maritime and shipping industry. The maritime industry and other remote seagoing sectors such as cruise lines and energy production "have long been a primary vertical market for satellite," Menezes said.

"Current generation technologies operating in LEO or geosynchronous orbit provide maybe a tenth (or less for narrowband LEO) of the throughput the new LEO broadband systems such as OneWeb will support," Menezes said.

"If it tailors its product for enterprise/government usage it could have an early advantage vs competitors such as Starlink that initially are focusing on consumer use," Menezes continued.

On Wednesday, OneWeb announced that it had signed a memorandum of understanding with satellite communications systems company AST Group to help deliver "fibre-like connectivity" to offshore and maritime customers.

"By partnering with AST, we are another step closer to making LEO connectivity available to more marine and offshore customers, ending the legacy of complex, slow and costly VSAT systems," said Carole Plessy, head of maritime at OneWeb.

"Responsible" low-Earth orbit use

Internet-basting satellites have made plenty of headlines due to peculiar streaks in the nighttime sky and dismay among astronomers as the presence of these orbiting vehicles can disrupt scientific observations. As part of OneWeb's operational framework, the company said it is sharing information with astronomers to help the scientific community map its "constellation locations precisely and schedule sensitive observational campaigns to avoid our passes."

The OneWeb website also lists a series of commitments related to its "responsible space" efforts.

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"OneWeb recognizes the emerging Space industry has a tremendous opportunity to develop communications and create new pathways for economic development, global education, rural health care and advancements in environmental science, in a world where four billion people have no access to the internet," said a portion of OneWeb's FAQ page.

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