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Will Airtel’s Bet on OneWeb’s Satellite Internet make it a Front Runner?

Bharti Enterprises logo

In July this year when all of the business world was investing cautiously, struggling with the after effects of Covid-19, Sunil Bharti Mittal led Bharti Enterprises made a joint investment with UK government, with each investing US$ 500 million for 45-45 % share respectively in the bankrupt satellite company OneWeb. Now what pushed Mr. Mittal to take such a bold decision is interesting. Let’s first understand what OneWeb does?

OneWeb’s Low Earth Orbit Satellite Constellation

OneWeb formerly known as WorldVu plans to launch mega-constellation of hundreds of satellites in low earth orbit (LEO) to deliver wireless telecom and internet services anywhere in the World. These LEO satellites operate between 500 km and 2,000 km above the surface of Earth, while traditional satellites or geostationary satellites operate at 36,000 km.

OneWeb Logo

Although, being at higher altitude traditional satellites can cover a larger area on Earth but latency is a major problem with them due to their distance from the surface. Also, transmitting huge amounts of data is not possible with limited number of satellites. LEO satellite constellations do not face such issues and are also able to cover entire length and breadth of regions in the remotest areas where cellular towers have failed to provide connectivity.

Airtel’s Plans for OneWeb

Earlier in July, Mr. Sunil Bharti Mittal had said in a statement “OneWeb’s platform will help to reduce the digital divide by providing high speed, low latency broadband access to the poor and hard-to-reach rural areas. A low-earth orbit constellation is the only viable mechanism through which the ‘last billion’ can be connected“.

Airtel logo

Through OneWeb, Airtel is planning to launch 648 LEO satellites by 2022 to start its satellite internet services. Several ground terminal stations will also be setup to support these satellites. Once the satellites are launched, and OneWeb’s coverage extends over arctic regions and northern European countries, test services will start in late 2021. Airtel will then begin to deliver these services in early part of 2022.

Till date OneWeb has already launched 74 satellites in space and will resume the launch program from December 2020. The launch program was paused after its bankruptcy filings in March earlier this year.

In a webinar held by India’s premier space agency ISRO in August 2020 Mr. Sunil Bharti Mittal, Chairman, Bharti Enterprises speaking about future plans for OneWeb said “We will have started to test a lot of ground and user terminals. It is here we would like to see ISRO’s hand and support in work to develop user terminals which cater to the needs of Indian requirement”.

Other Players in the Low Earth Orbit Space

OneWeb is not the only player working on LEO satellite coverage. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has already launched 895 LEO satellites under its Starlink project. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has revealed plans to launch 3,236 satellites under Project Kuiper.

Soon, there would be mega constellations in low earth orbits but the race would be won by the provider with most efficient and cost effective connectivity.

About OneWeb: OneWeb (formerly WorldVu) was founded by Greg Wyler in 2012 as a global communications company. The company is headquartered in London, United Kingdom and McLean, Virginia, United States with offices in California and satellite manufacturing facility in Florida.