OneWeb won’t be able broadcast into Russia. But how much will this hinder the satellite company’s plans to roll out a global network?

satellite near earth

Satellite broadcast: OneWeb satellites disallowed by Russia 

London headquartered OneWeb is suffering an unwanted blow to its already complex plans to place a mega-constellation of an initial 650 satellites into orbit around the planet.

It is in the middle of recruiting 150 new high-tech jobs to serve its Global Operations Centre (at former BBC premises on Wood Lane, White City) but Russia was reported to say it will not permit OneWeb’s satellites to beam their signals to and from Russia.

In July, OneWeb started assembling its satellites at a purpose-built factory in Florida, at Exploration Park which is located just outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Centre. The factory is a joint venture between OneWeb and Airbus Space & Defence.

OneWeb had applied to the Russian State Commission for Radio Frequencies to approve the use of OneWeb’s signals.

In May Russia’s President Putin signed a Bill which obliges all Russian web-traffic had to pass through points controlled by the government. Russia-based internet businesses have until 1 November to comply with the new rules.

OneWeb’s commercial director for Russia (Mikhail Kaigorodov) later said that the ‘ban’ was a non-story and stressed that OneWeb’s joint-venture partner in Russia had itself withdrawn its application so that it could re-apply under the new rules.

There is a significant demand within Russia from unconnected rural and isolated homes and villages. Research outfit GfK says that a quarter of Russians do not have internet access. If there are problems it could easily mean that the country’s authorities remain keen to continue tightening their control of internet access, said Prof Christopher Newman at Northumbria University, speaking to the BBC. “[Satellite internet] presents an existential strategic threat to their trying to limit internet activity within their boundaries.”

 “[Satellite internet] presents an existential strategic threat to their trying to limit internet activity within their boundaries.” Prof Christopher Newman, Northumbria University

OneWeb, whether over Russia or anywhere else, needs its sophisticated ground antennas to speedily track the overhead satellites and feed signals up to the orbiting craft, and send the signals onto their destinations. OneWeb’s land-based gateways will communicate with the satellites and connect traffic into the Internet. The satellites themselves will appear over the horizon, collect/send signals, and then automatically hand over any connection in place to the ‘follow-on’ satellite quite seamlessly. At least one OneWeb craft will always be visible to the ground antenna.

Looking to the skies
OneWeb says it is creating business solutions for broadband, government and cellular backhaul. Its high-speed, low latency, network will offer game-changing Mobility solutions to industries that rely on global connectivity, such as aviation, maritime, automotive, trains and more.

Indeed, it is the ‘aviation’ aspect that might impact OneWeb, given the fast-growing demand for in-flight connectivity and entertainment. Non-Russian aircraft that fly into and out of Moscow, or which overfly Russia, will potentially lose their broadband signals if any sort of ban stays in place.

oneweb satellite rocket

OneWeb Satellite Rocket: Launched from Russia

Source: OneWeb

OneWeb already has six test satellites in orbit which launched in February as its first steps in providing connectivity for the planet. Somewhat coincidentally it was a Russian rocket that launched the debut craft. Moreover, it is mostly Russian rockets that are contracted to launch the bulk of the initial 600+ satellites starting this coming December at a rate of about 30-36 satellites per launch.

Indeed, it is the value in ‘hard cash’ dollars for the launches that may provide some leverage for OneWeb with Russia’s space ministry (Roscosmos) leaning on its fellow ministries to reverse the “no rights” ruling.

UK disputes
However, not helping matters is that media relations between the UK and Russia are already at a low ebb. An Ofcom £200,000 fine in July on RT (the former Russia Today) TV channel resulted in an immediate response from Russia’s Foreign Ministry that Russia-based UK television services from the BBC. In a statement on social media, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it will “remind British media working in Russia that they should be ready to face the consequences” following the actions from Ofcom in London. In July a UK Government-backed conference on media freedoms in London banned RT and sister broadcaster Sputnik from accreditation to the Amal Clooney-chaired event.

In essence, if Russia continues any sort of belligerence towards OneWeb then it simply means that founder Greg Wyler’s satellites will have to overfly Russia and ignore the market. It is not yet clear whether Russia’s neighbouring nations (not least massive Kazakhstan) and China as well as the assorted other ’Stans (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgzstan and Tajikistan) to the South and whether they are inclined to approve or deny OneWeb’s plans.

“No matter if you’re in a car or you’re walking or you’re in a plane, from the point of view of our satellites, you’re essentially standing still” Adrian Steckel, OneWeb

The OneWeb satellites are formally Low Earth orbiting and will circle the planet at about 1200 kms (750 miles) above the ground, travelling at extremely high speed. Each satellite of the constellation will circle the Earth in about 2 hours.

“No matter if you’re in a car or you’re walking or you’re in a plane, from the point of view of our satellites, you’re essentially standing still,” Adrian Steckel, OneWeb’s CEO, told journalists. “And it’s handing off your signal from one satellite to another.” Steckel sees schools and community centres being key to usage patterns as well as local government centres in remote areas, where laying fibre is simply too expensive or just not viable.

OneWeb is domiciled in London because of its early history. Its operating frequencies were granted by the island of Jersey and called WorldVu Satellites Ltd which remains the formal name for OneWeb. However, while its Global Operations Centre is based in London, its day-to-day administration and management is based in Arlington, near Washington DC.

Greg Wyler, the founder of OneWeb is a serial entrepreneur, and in 2007 was the founder of O3b (standing for the ‘Other 3 billion’) which in 2016 was acquired and is now wholly owned by SES of Luxembourg. O3b has 20 satellites in orbit and is doing extremely well with significant contracts with – amongst other businesses – the lucrative holiday cruise-ship market.

Wyler has won huge backing from Japan’s media conglomerate SoftBank, as well as Intelsat, Coca Cola, India’s Bharti, Qualcomm, Airbus, Virgin and others. Wyler’s ambitions have also expanded, and he has asked for FCC permission to launch an eventual total of around 12,000 satellites. But not working over Russia – yet.