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OneWeb of 600 internet satellites in space

February 26, 2019

It's one planet, a mega-constellation of satellites, one web. Like internet for everyone, anywhere. Sounds great. Right?

Aurora Borealis Northern Lights as seen from the International Space Station
Image: picture alliance / ZUMA Press

The idea is simple: Get everyone on the planet on the internet. And there's a US-based company called OneWeb, which, along with European aerospace firm Airbus, hopes to achieve just that. It's not the first or even the only one to try it. But OneWeb is the first to get so far.

After starting up seven years ago, the company is finally starting to launch a fleet of about 600 satellites into a low-Earth orbit. That's closer to Earth than most communications satellites and one reason why the network might actually work, with "better web performance," as the company puts it. 

Read more: SpaceX's Starlink satellite internet

Low-Earth orbit (LEO) is typically up to an altitude of 1,000 kilometers (621 miles). For comparison, the International Space Station orbits at about 400 km, while other satellites in LEO tend to be for Earth observation and military purposes. Most telecommunications satellites fly twice as high in medium low-Earth orbit (MEO), or even higher at geostationary Earth orbit (GEO).

Why bother? 

Not that it's an impeccable source … but allow me to quote Mark Zuckerberg as played by Jesse Eisenberg in the 2010 movie "The Social Network."

Zucker/Eisenberg says: "Let me tell you the difference between Facebook and everybody else — We. Don't. Crash. Ever."

It's a simple line, and while perhaps not entirely true, it's one that underscores the power of Facebook and the power of our digital age as a whole.

We don't ever want to crash. Increasingly, we can't afford to crash. We don't ever want to be offline. Because when we are offline, we're lost. We've come to expect an "ubiquitous internet" so we can stream films, order drugs like pizza, and share selfies with Sumatran Tigers, or random acts of teenage violence from any phone, anywhere.

But here's the thing: The internet is not everywhere.

There are huge plots of the globe where hopping online is a dream, and patchy connectivity and total outages are the nightmares of everyday life. In fact, in some cases, being offline is worse than a nightmare — it's deadly. Think rescue workers trying to locate survivors after earthquakes, and getting information to those who need it, fast.

Earth observation image of southern Myanmar as captured by Landsat 5, a low-Earth satellite
Earth observation image of southern Myanmar as captured by Landsat 5, a low-Earth satelliteImage: NASA-Goddard-Photo-and-Video-via-Foter/CC BY

OneWeb lists the following use cases:

  • Assured global communications in "sudden infrastructure crisis," hurricanes, earthquakes and refugee situations
  • Low-latency broadband to "expand" in-flight connectivity
  • Vehicle cell network for first responders
  • Access to health centers, schools, libraries, and homes through a low cost user terminal, "ensuring relief to communities in need, tools to drive education, access to knowledge, and opportunities for local businesses"…
  • And under the heading "building a neutral network," the company says its small cell terminals and core network will […] allow OneWeb to work together with providers in any regulatory environment, anywhere in the world.
Graphic of a OneWeb Airbus satellite
Image: Airbus

Sounds great.

But, erm, what exactly does "any regulatory environment" mean?

First, let's take a step back. Some of us may not even wish to be online … churlish, curmudgeons who refuse to fit in with the tech industry's turbo-charged capitalism … they're luddites, letting the team down, right? Either that or we, the great unwashed, ungrateful West, will say in our infinite arrogant wisdom that "they" have nothing to fight for, or that they're plain freedom-haters.

Where's Kris Kristofferson when you need him?*

But, hey, no.

A single, global internet is for the good of everyone. Surely. No matter what you want it for. And it'll be free of any earthly challenges, such as sharks biting into submarine, trans-Pacific telecommunications cables, or our having to dig up remote desert landscapes in Sub-Saharan Africa, or even Australia.

Isn't that what we mean by environment? Some.

The environment — as in the ground beneath our feet and the air we breathe — does indeed play a role in space, because even internet satellites will still have to beam our films and social media movement back down to Earth, and satellites hate cloud cover as much as the next paranoid android.

Plus, we'll need a dish or receiver on the ground to pick up those signals. OneWeb's "user terminals" are apparently good for 3G, LTE and W-iFi connectivity.

Infographic showing satellite orbits around Earth

But the airwaves are dogged by interference, so it begs the question: Why not just lay a cable, instead of taking a detour through space?

Well, some countries won't let you. And that brings us to regulatory environments. And why OneWeb may be clever to refer specifically to any regulatory environments.

Because before we all start shooting hoops of joy, thinking OneWeb solves everything for the digitally oppressed of China or North Korea, the good money is on China blocking foreign satellite internet signals. No large power on this planet is above the use of jamming technology — in case you've never heard of it, jamming technology does what's written on the tin, it jams or blocks signals.

And China's testing jammers now.

Oh, and did we mention that the US and Russia are in on it, too?

Infographic showing how space debris can damage a satellite

That's not to mention the fact that China has business interests to protect: Current indications suggest that China wants to develop its own broadband satellite constellation in LEO. It already has satellite customers in Nigeria, Indonesia and Cambodia.

Read more: Towards the Moon: Why Europe wants to work with China

And as a result, India will also want to flex its network muscles sometime soon. And the UK.

Russia, meanwhile, has voiced its concern over OneWeb's plans to bring the internet to remote parts of its country as it reportedly fears the company's network could be used to gather intelligence and damage national security.

Vladimir Sadovnikov, a Federal Security official there has been reported as saying "the only way to address the threats of foreign satellite networks like OneWeb, especially in the Arctic region and Far North, is to restrict their usage in Russia."

Space debris - an international problem

Whether they do that, or whether they even have the technology to do that, doesn't really matter. The message is abundantly clear: Avert your eyes, Five Eyes!**          

The business of it all

Russia's message carefully leaves the door open for it to restrict other foreign networks too, because they will come.

Google has long had its head in the clouds with "Project Loon," a kind of mesh-network built with hot-air balloons. And Facebook has had a solar-powered drone project called Aquila. Both, it seems, could be used as "just-in-time" internet services, dashing on an ad-hoc basis to where emergency connectivity is required.

But the main contenders are SpaceX, which is already deep in the satellite-launching business and has space internet plans dubbed "Starlink," and then there's also Amazon, an online retailer turned "backend" provider and rocket builder.

Amazon and Blue Origin founder, Jeff Bezos
Many of America's tech entrepreneurs, like Amazon's Jeff Bezos, have had life-long interests in space. They went into business first. But space was a first passionImage: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS.com

Amazon's sister company, Blue Origin, builds the rockets, and just recently signed a deal with Canada's Telesat to launch part of a satellite constellation. It will aim to provide high-speed internet access to governments and businesses … not least its own.

Aside from its consumer retail business, Amazon's Web Services (AWS) platform is huge. AWS offers business-level computing services, including servers and big time analytics. And the bigger it gets, the less it will want to rely on external networks.

A bit like Russian and China … 

Ultimately, these networks are about controlling the flow of information, whether it's for entertainment or saving lives.

Animation: China lands probe on far side of moon

All you have to do is ask yourself whether you can trust a business to deliver a free and open, net neutral internet. Or whether you think it'll side first and foremost with its shareholder interests. Those interests may well coincide with your own, so if you're okay with that, then okay. But if not, then, Houston … we truly have a problem.

And not just the one.

Mega debris

Do the math, and you quickly realize that OneWeb's 600 satellites are just the start.

Amazon and SpaceX will each want to launch hundreds of their own satellites just to stay in the running, and then China and Russia will feel they have to add theirs to mix …

Graphic representing space debris or space junk. About 5,000 satellites orbit Earth, many are dead and out of operation
Of the 5,000 satellites in space, about a third are dead ... junk Image: AP

But low-Earth orbit is already over-populated with satellites, many of which are dead and inoperative. It's pure junk. And while there are technologies and ideas for how to mitigate a space-environmental-catastrophe, there's no enforceable law to have countries or companies remove all their junk. Which is a problem, because space debris is not just litter, it's also a potential danger to life and telecommunications.

OneWeb is aware of this "over-crowding" issue, up to a point.

It's developed a "Progressive Pitch" technology, which, says the company, will allow it to tilt "satellites as they approach the equator to make sure we never cause, or receive, interference."

Okay, so that's an "uninterrupted" service for you.

As for all that junk, OneWeb says its satellites will deorbit automatically when they near the end of their "intended service life."

Two years ago, DW tried to ask OneWeb for details on its sustainability plans at the European Space Agency's 7th conference on Space Debris. But they just walked off. That's one way to say "no comment."

*Kris Kristofferson, American country singer, co-wrote the line: "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose."

**The Five Eyes intelligence alliance includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.


This article was originally published on 26.2.2019 with the headline "OneWeb of 900 internet satellites in space." At the time of researching and writing, the number of 900 satellites seemed correct. We have since learnt that OneWeb have revised the number to "<600 satellites needed for global coverage." The company appears to have resigned its website since the first six satellites were launched on February 27, 2019. We have changed our headline and the body of the article accordingly (7.3.2019). 


DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI and the mind, and how science touches people