Tuesday, August 22, 2017

OneWeb satellite Internet project update

The OneWeb mission is to bridge the digital divide globally by 2027
Greg Wyler, 2017 Softbank World conference

Whoever gets the most data wins.
Masayoshi Son, 2017 Softbank World conference

Satellites in 18 orbital planes
SpaceX and OneWeb are formidable, experienced competitors in a race to become global Internet service providers using satellite constellations -- routers in space. I posted a status report on SpaceX last week, now let's look at OneWeb.

OneWeb founder and executive chairman Greg Wyler has extensive experience with networking in developing nations. In 2003 his company, Terracom, signed a contract to connect Rwandan schools, government institutions, and homes. They failed to meet their goal, and the difficulty of dealing with terrestrial infrastructure led Wyler to focus on satellite connectivity.

In 2007, he founded O3b Networks (Other 3 billion), which today provides high-speed connectivity to Internet service providers and phone companies using a constellation of 12 satellites orbiting at 8,012 km above the equator. (The geosynchronous satellites used for TV transmission and Internet access in remote areas orbit 35,786 km above the equator). In spite of its name, O3b was not going to connect the entire world and Wyler founded OneWeb in 2012, with the mission of bridging the digital divide, which he hopes to do by 2027.

Satellites will be mass-produced,
reducing cost and cutting production
time significantly.
OneWeb and SpaceX have the same goal, but their organizations are dissimilar. SpaceX is integrated -- building the rockets, satellites and ground stations themselves -- while OneWeb has partners that bring skills and funds to the project. For example, Qualcomm will design and supply communication chips and Airbus will manufacture satellites.

OneWeb also has a symbiotic relationship with Softbank, their largest investor. SoftBank's Vision Fund has invested $1 billion in OneWeb and OneWeb plays a strategic role in SoftBank's vision of the future.

SoftBank founder and CEO Masayoshi Son outlined his vision of the future in the keynote session ofth the 2017 SoftBank World conference. He believes the information revolution will be driven by strong, general artificial intelligence (AI), therefore the key material asset for the information age will be AI training data -- "whoever gets the most data wins."

Low-cost, user-installable
terminals will support WiFi, cell
phones, and the Internet. Solar panels
and batteries are optional.
Several Vision Fund investments focus on collecting that training data from Internet of things (IoT) devices. They have invested in ARM, which dominates the IoT and smartphone processor markets, Nvidia which makes processors used in AI, Boston Dynamics which is building intelligent robots and, you guessed it, OneWeb, which will link 1 trillion IoT devices to AI projects.

Wyler and representatives of some other Vision Fund companies made presentations during the keynote. Here is a summary of what Wyler said:
  • They have priority rights to 3.55 GHz of globally harmonized spectrum for non-geostationary satellites. (They also have a technique for avoiding interference with geo-stationary satellites when over the equator).
  • They will have 49 satellites in each of 18, 1,200 km orbital planes.
  • With Airbus, they have devised a novel satellite manufacturing process that will allow mass production rather than hand building.
  • Cost per satellite will be under $1 million and they will be able to produce three per day.
  • They will connect both Internet gateways and end users.
  • The first satellites will have a capacity of 595 Mbps, but that will increase to over 1 Gbps. (More on capacity below).
  • Latency will be under 50 ms, making interactive applications like 5G mobile telephony, game playing and Web surfing possible.
The following is a video (9:43) of his presentation:


(You can see the entire keynote session with presentations by several Vision Fund companies (2:12:15) here or just Son's introduction, outlining his Vision Fund strategy (30:17) here).

Satellite footprint 1,080 by 1,080 km
System capacity is a key variable. OneWeb claimed satellite throughput would be "up to" 7.5 Gbps in a June 2016 presentation to the ITU, but Wyler quoted much lower capacity in his Softbank talk. (I've asked OneWeb for clarification on this change, but have not received a reply. I will update this post if and when I do).

That revised capacity estimate may explain Wyler's February 2017 statement that they had sold a considerable portion of the capacity of their planned constellation. The following month they filed an application with the FCC for an additional 720 satellites orbiting at 1,200 km and 1,280 orbiting at 8,500 km. The 720 satellite constellation application has been approved.

I have no idea what their planned customer mix is. They will presumably serve relatively few Internet gateways, but those will require considerable bandwidth. End users like homes and schools will require less bandwidth, but there will be more of them. There will be large numbers of IoT devices, but they will require little bandwidth. Population densities also vary greatly -- between urban and rural areas, continents and islands and, in the extreme, ships at sea. 1 Gbps will go a lot further in Alaska than Bangladesh.

OneWeb seems to be ahead of SpaceX's schedule. They plan to launch their first satellites in March 2018. (That will satisfy the ITU requirement that they are using their spectrum). They will begin offering service in Alaska in 2019 and hope to cover all of Alaska by the end of 2020. By 2025 they expect to have 1 billion subscribers and their mission is to eliminate the global digital divide by 2027.

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Update 10/28/2017

The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) and OneWeb have signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on rural connectivity. Greg Wyler, Founder and Executive Chairman of OneWeb, promised that “Starting in 2020, OneWeb will be able to deliver everyone in Saudi Arabia, regardless of their location, high-speed broadband at their home, office, or school."

The Saudi National transformation plan calls for extending connectivity to nearly all rural areas and OneWeb is expected to help them reach 30% of rural homes. No details were released, but since this is a deal with the government, the strategy may be to use OneWeb for a national "backbone" and provide backhaul for local area networks rather than serving consumers directly.

Note that OneWeb investor and partner Richard Branson is witnessing the signing.

OneWeb's Greg Wyler signing an MOU with the Saudi MCIT

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Update 11/3/2017

Greg Wyler testifying
Greg Wyler, Founder and Executive Chairman of OneWeb, testified before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on "The Commercial Satellite Industry: What’s Up and What’s on the Horizon."

In his introductory remarks, Wyler said their schedule had slipped by two months and they will launch their first ten satellites next May. By 2019, they will be able to offer service throughout Alaska and will cover the entire US in 2020. Their first constellation will offer connections of up to 500 mbps and have a total capacity of 7 tbps. The second constellation, planned for 2021, will offer speeds up to 2.5 tbps and bring total capacity to 120 tbps. (High speeds will be possible in lightly populated regions). The third constellation, planned for 2013, will cover 1 billion potential consumers by 2025 and have a total capacity of 1,000 tbps. By 2027 they will cover the globe.

Wyler said they and their partners will invest $30 billion and provide many high-paying jobs. They will partner with local ISPs and phone companies in marketing their service. He also spoke of space debris and reentry casualties.

After the introductory remarks, the senators asked questions of the panelists. Mr. Wyler said the US is the technology leader among spacefaring nations and, if we take the lead in regulation, other nations and the International Telecommunication Union would follow. For example, he feels that a 125 km orbital altitude separation should be maintained between satellites and they should be limited to a five-year lifespan.

Several senators asked about pricing and data caps and Mr. Wyler responded that their partner ISPs, not OneWeb, would set prices that were affordable in their regions -- we can expect a customer in a high-GDP nation to pay considerably more than a customer in a low-GDP nation. He also stressed the importance of safety, saying investments would dry up if there were a satellite collision and he said prolonged uncertainty over spectrum-sharing would also dampen investment.

You can read Wyler's written testimony summarizing their plans, expected benefits and policy recommendations here or watch his oral testimony, beginning 1:02:50 of the archived video of the hearing. Representatives of OneWeb, Intelsat and ViaSat also testified, but, Boeing was noticeably absent.