Troubled OneWeb satellite system now fully owned by the UK government and Bharti

Martyn Warwick
By Martyn Warwick

Nov 23, 2020

  • Plan is to have 648 satellites in orbit by 2022. It's a big ask
  • Big new investments needed
  • Broadband access from space will cover Northern Hemisphere first
  • Faces major problems in replacing post-Brexit Galileo access

OneWeb, the until-recently bankrupt satellite-operating company in which the UK government has invested half a billion pounds of taxpayers money, has left the haven of US Chapter 11 protection that it entered back in March as the Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to its knees, and now, with its immense former debts written-off and constituted as a new company, it has been sold and is set to burst back onto the global stage. 

It is now owned by a consortium which, in essence, is a joint venture between two principal shareholders, Her Majesty's Government (HMG) and Bharti Global, the Indian multinational with interests in telecoms, agribusiness, financial services, food, hospitality, manufacturing and property, which has a 45 per cent interest in the new company. The HMG/Bharti conglomerate now owns all of OneWeb's assets. These consist primarily of 72  in-orbit satellites and their supporting earth-based infrastructure.

OneWeb collapsed into bankruptcy when former backer Softbank of Japan, (once regarded as the company that could do no wrong with founder Masayoshi Son at the helm until the WeWork and Uber disasters earlier this year caused the biggest loss in the company's history and greatly diminished Mr. Son in the eyes of Wall Street and the global investment community) withdrew support and turned off the cash tap.

Now the plan for the resuscitated OneWeb is to build and deploy a massive constellation of 648 satellites that will provide broadband connectivity to some 90 per cent of the planet. A secondary consideration is the provision of an ultra-accurate positioning, navigation and timing asset that, as far as the British government is concerned, would go, in some small measure, towards replacing post-Brexit non-membership of the EU's massive Galileo satnav project. Britain invested billions of pounds in the development of Galileo but is now disbarred from using it.

As a US federal court sanctioned the end of OneWeb's bankruptcy and its sale to theUK/Bharti consortium, it was announced that the CEO of the new company is Neil Masterson, sometime COO of Thomson Reuters. 

According to PR releases, there will be sufficient OneWeb satellites in situ by "sometime in 2021" to provide broadband Internet access from space in the Northern Hemisphere down to "about" 50 degrees latitude (that would mean there would be coverage across the entire UK and Ireland) with the remaining balance of the 648 satellite constellation to be in orbit over other latitudes "sometime the year after". Needless to say, to meet these objectives, the project will require a lot more money. According to Sunil Mittal, the chairman of Bharti, the investment of a further US$2 billion, or perhaps $2.5 billion or perhaps more will be required to get the constellation completed. The business plan for One Web is to sell broadband capacity to telcos, CSPs and DSPs for them to distribute and sell to their customers in both the enterprise and residential sectors.

At the moment 36 satellites are on their way from Florida in the US to the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia from where, on December 17, all three dozen will be launched on a Soyuz booster, the venerable and reliable workhorse of the space programme. A further 16 satellites will be lofted byFrench Arianespace rockets "early in 2021". A quick bit of mental arithmetic shows that with the 72 satellites already in orbit and provided the launches go to plan, there will be 124 satellites up there by Spring next year. That leaves a further 524 to be put in place by the end of 2022 and that's a big ask given that the links of OneWeb's satellite supply chain have rusted through since it went bankrupt. 

UK government: "Full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes". Civil servants: "Calm down and slow down"

The UK's decision to opt for investment in OneWeb has a number of critics, mainly on the grounds that the technology isn't up to snuff. One frequently voiced concern of scientists and engineers is that there is no proof whatsoever that the type of low-earth-orbit satellites developed by the company can be adapted to povide the levels of accuracy required for satellite navigation. Meanwhile, critics in the military establishment have warned that the proximity of the satellites to the earth would make them an easy target in the event of a conflict, when they would be destroyed within minutes.

In response, the government is funding the UK Space Agency (UKSA) to research "new approaches" to tracking satellites and space debris in orbit around the globe. Apparently this will involve "smart sensors" and "smart algorithms" so that OneWeb satellites won't collide with other satellites or with any bits of the huge amount of space junk now cluttering up orbital routes. 

Orbital space is getting more and more crowded with all sorts of redundant satellites and associated junk so there is an urgent need to know precisely where they are so that launches can be made into the increasingly limited useful vacant orbital slots that are still available. Government estimates are that there are at least 900,000 objects bigger than a centimetre across hurtling around in orbit about at tens of thousands of miles an hour, any one of which would be big enough to destroy a functioning satellite or spacecraft.

Data from the new system will be transmitted to a state-of-the art automated traffic management system that would issue the orders to move operational satellites out of harm's way in a game of continuous celestial pinball. Well, continuous until the limited quantity of propellant fuel on the satellites gives out.

Speaking to the BBC, Jacob Geer, the Head of National Spaceflight Policy at the UKSA said, "We've known for a long while that the space environment is getting more difficult, more cluttered. Space surveillance and tracking is one of the key things we can do to keep safe those satellites we rely on now, and to make sure certain orbits don't become inaccessible for future generations because there's too much debris in them."

The UK government's decision to bid for OneWeb was controversial from the start and was fiercely resisted by Whitehall "mandarins" (senior career civil servants who provide overarching continuity as political administrations come and go as voters decide). Such was the opposition to the plan that Alok Sharma, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the man responsible for the OneWeb project , was forced to take the unusual step of issuing a "ministerial direction" to civil servants to force the project through in the teeth of determined civil service resistance.

Commenting on the completion of the acquisition of the OneWeb assets, Mr. Sharma said, "This strategic investment demonstrates Government’s commitment to the UK’s space sector in the long-term and our ambition to put Britain at the cutting edge of the latest advances in space technology. Access to our own global fleet of satellites has the potential to connect people worldwide, providing fast UK-backed broadband from the Shetlands to the Sahara and from Pole to Pole.  This deal gives us the chance to build on our strong advanced manufacturing and services base in the UK, creating jobs and technical expertise."

The development of OneWeb comes even as the government has announced the creation of the UK's "Space Command". The very name is redolent of Dan Dare, the strip cartoon hero of the Eagle comic of the 1950s, which was a cheer-leader for Britain's aspirations to become a major player in the space race and interplanetary exploration. It is widely forgotten now but during the 50, 60s and early 70s the UK had an advanced satellite launch capability and in 1971 a British designed and built rocket, "Black Arrow" was launched from the Woomera test site in Australia and successfully placed the British "Prospero" satellite into orbit.

"Prospero" was named after the main protagonist in Shakespeare's final play, "The Tempest", although it was Puck in "A Midsummer's Night Dream" who said he would "put a girdle around the earth in 40 minutes." That said, "Puck" was probably a potentially risky moniker to append to a prestigious British satellite effort and so "Prospero"it became. To date, Prospero remains the only British satellite ever to be put into orbit by British launch vehicle but times are changing, and it has been announced that the Space Force will be able to launch rockets from the wilds of the Kingdom of Fife in Scotland by 2022 - although what might happen should Scotland, in due course, vote for independence is about as clear as the infamous Scotch mist of the Kingdom of Fife.

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