OneWeb sends up 36 broadband internet satellites

OneWeb has put up another 36 satellites, taking its in-orbit constellation to 146 spacecraft.

The new platforms were lofted by a Soyuz rocket from Russia’s far east.

The additions will enable engineers to further test the company’s promised system for delivering broadband internet connections from space.

OneWeb is now owned principally by the Indian conglomerate Bharti Global and the UK government after they bought the enterprise out of bankruptcy last year.

The new management anticipates offering a commercial service this autumn to northern latitudes – including Britain, Northern Europe, Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and Arctic Seas – with a full global roll-out of connectivity in mid-2022.

“We have what we call ‘five to 50’ (degrees latitude). So, that’s five launches we need to do in order to get to this coverage of basically the south coast of the UK to the North Pole,” explained chief executive Neil Masterson.

“By the end of June we will have completed those launches to enable us to be providing our service. But in total this year, we expect to be doing somewhere between eight and 10 launches,” he told BBC News.

Mr Masterson, formerly the co-chief operating officer at business information provider Thomson Reuters, was brought into OneWeb when it emerged from “Chapter 11” bankruptcy protection in November.

There has been an intense period of hires, with more than 200 employees joining the books since the autumn.

Supply chains have also had to be re-established, allowing OneWeb Satellites, the joint venture with Airbus, to resume full-volume manufacturing at its factory in Florida.

And all this has required extra funding, of course.

OneWeb announced in January it had raised a further $400m from tech investor Softbank and satellite services specialist Hughes Network Systems. But this still leaves OneWeb short of about $1bn to finish the set-up of its first-generation constellation of 648 satellites.

Those spacecraft also need an array of supporting ground stations dotted around the globe.

“We need one more ground station to fully support commercial service in the areas mentioned by the end of this year,” the chief executive said.

“We know where it’s going to be. Covid makes it a little bit more tricky, but I think we feel confident at this stage, we’ll get it done.”

OneWeb satellites in preparation
image captionOneWeb wants to do at least another seven launches this year

OneWeb says its testing programme is progressing well, and in a demonstration this month for the US Department of Defense claimed its satellites were providing downlink data rates of up to 500 megabits per second with a delay, or latency, in the internet connections as low as 32 milliseconds.

OneWeb’s chief competitor in the internet mega-constellation business is Starlink, which is being set up by the Californian rocket company SpaceX.

Starlink, which has 1,320 satellites in orbit now after another launch on Wednesday (the architecture of its network requires more satellites than OneWeb) has already begun beta testing with high-latitude customers.

Artwork satellite
image captionArtwork: Phase one of the project will see more than 600 satellites launched

The two projects are, though, following quite different business models.

OneWeb will be working with partner telecommunications companies to deliver its broadband offering, whereas Starlink will be selling a big chunk of its bandwidth direct to the consumer.

Some way behind both OneWeb and Starlink are Lightspeed and Kuiper.

Lightspeed is the broadband mega-constellation being developed by the long-established Canadian satellite communications company Telesat. This system has only just selected a spacecraft manufacturer in the Franco-Italian aerospace company Thales Alenia Space. The first of Lightspeed’s 298 satellites won’t launch for another two years.

Kuiper is a subsidiary of online retailer Amazon. Like Starlink, the Kuiper constellation will comprise several thousand satellites but details of a launch schedule have not been released.

There are tentative proposals in the EU also for a communications mega-constellation. 

Lightspeed network
image captionTelesat is planning its own network, Lightspeed, comprising 298 satellites

In the UK, the government’s purchase of a stake in OneWeb has been controversial, especially with an early suggestion that the constellation could be fashioned into some sort replacement for the EU’s Galileo navigation system which Britain no longer has a stake in after Brexit.

It was confirmed this week that OneWeb has answered the Request for Information now being run in government to find solutions to the country’s needs for precise Positioning, Navigation and Timing, or PNT.

But this is likely, certainly in the short term, to take the form of resilience support. In other words, using OneWeb to bolster the signals coming from Galileo and its American counterpart, GPS.

Mr Masterson says his team are thinking about the services they could offer in the future, especially when OneWeb introduces a second generation of spacecraft – the manufacture of which will have a lot more British involvement.

Carissa Christensen, the chief executive of consultancy Bryce Space and Technology, discussed OneWeb on a recent edition of the BBC’s Bottom Line business programme.

She said: “The UK has targeted space as a driver of economic growth. OneWeb is in a very exclusive club with regard to space capabilities and space activities, and so for me there’s some alignment in that decision to become an investor in OneWeb with that vision of space driving a post-Brexit UK economic boom. 

“I don’t want to overstate that as saying, ‘clearly that’s going to work’. But it’s taking on an opportunity and it’s a bold decision.”

Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent

Satellites beat balloons in race for flying internet

Satellites – once the poor relation of broadband providers, considered the slowest, most expensive option and a real last resort – have become the hot favourite in the race to connect the world in places land-based internet does not reach.

Ambitious alternatives have bitten the dust.

Last week, Google scrapped its Loon company, set up nine years ago to beam the internet down to rural areas via a network of large balloons but unable to “build a long-term, sustainable business”.

And Facebook abandoned Aquila, its flying-internet project using drones, in 2018.

But satellite-based services, such as Elon Musk’s Starlink, are taking off – in every sense.

Weather-proof reliability

Large, relatively low-flying satellite networks have the potential to bring the internet to rural areas and “notspots” anywhere in the world. 

And the latest offerings promise high speeds, low latency and weather-proof reliability – eventually.

Starlink, which aims to deliver broadband internet around the world via 42,000 satellites, is already being used by a small number of people in the UK and North America.

And rival service OneWeb, though not yet ready for customers, has resumed launching satellites after being rescued from bankruptcy by Indian conglomerate Bharti Global and the UK government last year.

Artwork: OneWeb
image captionOneWeb has ambitious plans for satellite coverage

Another serious competitor, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, plans to launch more than 3,000 satellites of its own.

And earlier this month, Beijing announced measures to support its growing satellite-broadband sector, the South China Morning Post reported..

All that adds up to an awful lot of satellites, which has caused concern among astronomers and stargazers.

Dr Alice Gorman, for example, says there is no doubt these “mega-constellations”, visible chains of satellites, are changing the night sky.

“The mega-constellations are being sold with the idea that satellite broadband is a universal good,” she told BBC News.

“It is important to remember that the motivation for these constellations is not philanthropy but profit

“Satellites are not the solution to everything.

“The lack of internet access in some places is due to the lack of investment in terrestrial infrastructure.”

Samantha Lawler, assistant professor of astronomy, at the University of Regina, in Canada, meanwhile, warned of a “mundane highway of moving lights, obscuring the stars”.

Mr Musk’s response has been characteristically brusque, however.

“There are already 4,900 satellites in orbit, which people notice [about] 0% of the time,” he tweeted.

View original tweet on Twitter

Some of these services will supply internet direct to customers, others via existing providers such as mobile-phone networks.

But Loon was unable to turn a profit despite having secured significant commercial partnerships with mobile networks in Africa.

And OneWeb remains $1-1.5bn short of funding.

‘Risky investment’

“The biggest challenge will be affordability,” CCS Insight analyst Kester Mann said.

“Space is a huge and risky investment.

“And it may take many years before devices fall sufficiently in price to become appealing to the mass market.

“This will be particularly relevant in emerging markets.”

And that means costs will have to be recouped from consumers.

SpaceX charged $99 (£75) per month for its initial trial offering in North America, plus a one-off $499 fee for the hardware.

And that came with a warning that, at least at first, the service might not always work.

‘Definitely sell’

“Pricing is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges,” Mr Mann said.

“If you live in a rural area and you can afford it – particularly if you rely on connectivity for work and have no other options – then it will definitely sell.

“But as a mass-market solution, it will need to come down in price. 

“This is particularly relevant for the UK, where people are accustomed to paying much less for their broadband bills than US consumers.”

EU must ‘move at speed’ on space broadband network

The European Commission says it wants its newly proposed satellite mega-constellation to be offering some sort of initial service in 2024.

The first priority is to fill in gaps in broadband coverage where ground infrastructure cannot reach, but later it will power services such as self-driving cars. 

The project will in some ways mirror America’s Starlink and the UK-Indian OneWeb networks.

Its scope has yet to be fully defined.

A consortium of aerospace and telecoms companies is doing that right now.

But EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said he wanted to get going on the idea as soon as possible.

“My objective is to go fast. And therefore it would be appropriate that the Commission puts forward this year a proposal to the European Parliament and the Council so we can move concretely,” he told the 13th European Space Conference on Tuesday.

“To be ready, we launched a few weeks ago a study on a secure space-based connectivity system. The selected consortium consisting of European satellite manufacturers, operators and service providers, telco operators and launch service providers will study the possible design and development of this project.

“This will provide insights on the technical dimension, but also the governance structure, the financing, the missions, the exact scope. I expect their first feedback in April this year.”

image captionOneWeb: Launching a low-Earth orbiting satellite constellation is an expensive business

The secure communications system would be the next flagship space project to come out of the EU after the Galileo satellite-navigation constellation and the Copernicus programme with its Earth observing Sentinel spacecraft.

EU officials have only spoken in the broadest terms about what they want to see from the new telecommunications project.

They talk about a mix of low, medium and geostationary satellites that use advanced quantum encryption, are interlinked with optical connectors, and which piggyback sensors that might also be used to monitor aviation and shipping – just as examples. But, they argue, fast, secure, low-latency, space-borne connectivity will be the must-have capability to enable a raft of coming technologies, such as self-driving cars. 

Europe needs such a capability if it wants to stay globally competitive.

The primary motivation in the first instance, however, would be to fill those last “not spots” in member states where ground infrastructure is incapable of delivering broadband services – thought to be at least five million households.

Thierry Breton:
image captionBreton: A proposal to the European Parliament and the Council by the year’s end

Pressed on cost, EU officials told reporters on Tuesday that any estimate would have to wait on the industrial consortium’s report in the spring. Nonetheless, experience says it would be in the billions of euros price bracket.

And as to where the money will come from to make it all happen, the preferred option seems to be some sort of public-private partnership.

The officials said the commission had some funds across its various directorates that it could call on, but that they expected industry, individual member states and the European Space Agency to invest in the system as well.

Whatever the system looks like and however it is funded, speed of implementation will be paramount. 

The Starlink broadband mega-constellation, which is being built by US entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, has already started offering “beta”, or trial, broadband connections in Northern Europe; and OneWeb, owned by Indian conglomerate Bharti Global and the British government, hopes to have an initial offering for its Northern European customers later this year.

“From the first idea about Galileo through to the first operational service in Europe, it has taken 20 years; we don’t have 20 years [for this new project],” observed Jean-Marc Nasr, the head of Airbus Space Systems, which leads the feasibility consortium.

“Speed is of the essence here. The idea of the European space infrastructure has been on the table since early 2020. We cannot have the first service in 2040. If we do that, we are dead. 

“We have to have the service operational at the end of this decade at the latest. And this requires all of us to work as a team to deliver the best competitive service and technical background to Europe.”

Artwork: Galileo
image captionArtwork: It took two decades to get the Galileo system fully up and running

There is talk of having the entire network in place by the end of the new EU multi-annual budget period, which is 2027. 

One issue of supreme importance for the implementation of the network will be securing the radio frequencies on which it will operate, as pointed out by Riadh Cammoun, vice president of public and regulatory affairs at the Franco-Italian satellite manufacturer Thales Alenia Space.

“We need funding, we need a vision, we need leadership, but also we need frequency rights to sustain the launch of a European low-Earth orbit constellation,” he told the conference.

The commission said it had been working for some months already to try to secure those frequencies. The allocation and use of satellite frequencies is negotiated through the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent

Virgin Media broadband price rises of up to £54 in 2021

Virgin Media is alerting customers to forthcoming price increases for its broadband, TV and phone services.

The average rise would be 4%, it said. That is 13 times higher than the current consumer-price-inflation rate.

It plans to invest £1bn in its network this year. Virgin did not raise prices as normal in 2020, citing pandemic-related difficulties for customers.

Other internet providers are expected to announce similar – or larger – inflation-beating increases soon.

For example, BT changed its terms and conditions last year to say it would increase broadband prices by 3.9% above the first CPI rate published every year, which this year is due in 16 days.

BT’s sister companies, EE and Plusnet, followed suit.

And that means their prices are likely to rise by an even higher percentage than Virgin’s.

The most recent CPI rate – covering the month of November – was 0.3%, the lowest since 2016.

If it stayed at the same level for December, BT’s prices will rise by 4.2% under its new rules, which it has confirmed it plans to stick with.

Billion-pound investments

Virgin Media said it was writing to or emailing all its customers to let them know how the increases would affect them.

It said most would see their bill go up by between £2.50 and £4.50 a month, which is £30-£54 a year.

The 4% average rise works out at £3.63 a month, about 12p a day.

The increases will come into effect on 1 March – but they will not affect vulnerable customers, such as those on a special package for universal credit recipients.

“Changing prices is never an easy decision, which is why, unlike other providers, this is our first cable price change in 18 months,” a spokesman said.

He said the company had seen unprecedented demand since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Over the last year our customers have used their connectivity more than ever before, with data use increasing at the fastest rate we’ve ever seen,” he said.

Way out 

Plusnet also confirmed it planned to press ahead with the new CPI-plus-3.9% rule, though it will hold off until June to do so.

But not every internet provider uses this system.

While others have yet to formally announce price increases, many do so on an annual basis, and usually at a rate above inflation.

Sky, for example, increased prices by up to 10% last year, with different price increases for different services, amounting to £1-£2 a month extra per service.

But rules from the UK’s broadband regulator, Ofcom, mean those unhappy with any provider’s price increases can leave their contracts early without a penalty.

Natalie Hitchins, from the consumer watchdog Which, said that while investment in broadband infrastructure is a good thing, “this price-hike will sting”.

“Customers should do some research to see if there are better deals on the market and if there are, they should consider switching,” she said.

Anyone wanting to end their contract early will need to inform their provider within 30 days of receiving a message about the change in tariff.

UK government ‘likely to miss’ broadband and 5G targets

The UK will fail to achieve its target of offering superfast broadband to 85% of the UK by 2025, MPs have warned.

Initially, the government had aimed for nationwide coverage within five years.

But targets were scaled back when it emerged that only 25% of the promised £5bn funding would be available. 

The Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee said the cuts, paired with a “lack of effective planning” meant the UK could end up playing catch-up to other countries. 

The report said there was “no genuine belief” from within the sector that the government’s current goals were possible within its current timeframe.

“The government’s decision to abandon its 2025 gigabit-capable broadband target within weeks of ministers reassuring us of their commitment to it was a belated recognition that it was unrealistic and unachievable, underlining concerns we’d heard from industry,” said committee chairman Julian Knight.

On the same day as the committee’s scathing report, the government also laid out the next steps in its plan.

It said homes and businesses that did not yet have access to superfast broadband would be prioritised in the ongoing roll-out.

Lloyd Felton, of County Broadband, said this would be crucial in making sure the UK’s broadband was fit for future generations.

“Continued growth in the rollout of full-fibre broadband is much-needed, as a recent Ofcom report revealed only 18% of the UK can access full-fibre services.

“It is vital that we take the opportunities to invest in full-fibre infrastructure now, to ensure Britain’s broadband is accessible to all UK properties,” he added.

The committee also echoed concerns from within the telecoms industry that the government would fall short of its 5G coverage target, leaving some areas without connectivity.

Mobile ‘not-spots’

The government had previously announced its target for majority 5G coverage in the UK by 2027 as part of its £5bn plan. 

However, the DCMS said the plans in their current state failed to address problems with coverage in hard-to-reach rural areas.

About 9% of the UK has little or no access to 4G networks from any provider.

“The government’s target to deliver to the majority of the population, rather than the majority of the country, risks repeating the same errors that led to mobile ‘not-spots’,” said Mr Knight. 

“If investors cherry-pick areas of high population, it leaves people in remote rural areas without a hope.”

Mr Knight added that current plans risked “embedding digital inequality rather than solving it”. 

Honest Mobile founder Andy Aitken urged the government to put addressing the UK’s current coverage issues ahead of its 5G plans.

“Even people in central London – where coverage is best – still find themselves in not-spots and without a connection during rush hour,” said Mr Aitken.

He added: “Lockdown has only highlighted the importance of giving high-quality internet access to everyone wherever they live in the UK.”

Following a ruling in July, the UK’s mobile providers are banned from using Huawei 5G equipment after 31 December.

They must also remove all the Chinese firm’s 5G kit from their networks by 2027. 

The legislation is expected to result in a delay of at least two years to 5G roll-out, with additional costs of up to £2bn.

Broadband: Virgin to offer hyper-fast speeds in parts of Wales

Hundreds of thousands of people will have access to hyper-fast broadband after Virgin Media said it would bring its gigabit service to Wales.

The service will be available to people in parts of Cardiff and some nearby counties in south-east Wales. 

The telecoms firm said customers would be able to receive speeds 18 times faster than average in Cardiff. 

A plan to get gigabit broadband in every home by 2025 was rolled back by the UK government last week.

Parts of Rhondda Cynon Taf, Caerphilly, Vale of Glamorgan, Bridgend and Neath Port Talbot will also be able to get faster speeds.

The new broadband would allow users to download 4K films or very large files almost instantaneously.

However, the village of Pennant, near Llanbrynmair, Powys, had the slowest broadband in Wales, according to technology comparison website Uswitch. 

Average download speeds there were 0.86Mbps, and it would take about 17 hours to download a two-hour film there, Uswitch said. 

Jeff Dodds, from Virgin Media, said: “At a time when our services play a vital role in supporting people’s lives and powering the economy, Virgin Media is continuing to invest and as a result our gigabit footprint is growing like gangbusters.”

Fibre broadband: The cost of delivering in rural areas

By Jane Wakefield

Wisbech is a pretty market town in Cambridgeshire but it’s an area divided by access to fast broadband.

Paul Brett moved to the area in 2003, seeking a slightly more laid-back way of life. But as a software engineer, he also needed fast broadband.

And despite being in a location that is not exactly rural – he can see the town from his house – he has struggled, initially on a 0.5Mbps (megabits per second) connection when he moved in, rising to 5Mbps now – still in the bottom few in the country for broadband speed.

A few years ago he was hopeful he could make the leap into the 21st century when a technology called Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) finally became available to the town.

He was it disappointed to find it didn’t help.

“My speed halved – rather than being an upgrade it got worse, so I immediately cancelled that and got my money back,” he says.

That’s because FTTC, as the name suggests, runs only to the nearest green street cabinet. For the last part of the journey, broadband has to travel along old copper wire – which means that the further away you live, the worse the speed gets.

£20,000 discount

Not to be defeated, Mr Brett clubbed together with some of his neighbours to persuade BT to run 1Gbps (gigabit per second) fibre broadband to their street.

But when the quote came back from Openreach, the spin-off from BT that is responsible for the vast majority of the UK’s broadband infrastructure, he was shocked.

“I was quoted £101,855.00 – which seemed high.”

There was no breakdown of the cost but Openreach had helpfully done some of the maths – for 17 premises the cost per home or business would be £5,991.47, with the possibility of vouchers taking an estimated £20,000 off the overall estimate.

A telegraph pole in a rural area
image captionProviding fibre to the home requires either underground ducts or the use of overhead cables

Mr Brett estimates that he is about 1.4 km (0.9 miles) away “as the crow flies” but a little longer if he takes into account the route BT would use to get fibre all the way to his home (known as fibre to the premises, or FTTP).

Matthew Bateman, Openreach’s director of infrastructure development, explained why it would be so expensive.

“We have to take a physical fibre cable along roads and fields and it needs to be put in underground ducts or across poles. The civil-engineering costs could involve road closures and the erection of several poles. These are all very large costs.”

But with so many people choosing to live in rural locations and more and more working from home in response to the Covid-19 crisis, Mr Brett thinks it is time for BT to “think outside the box”.

“BT needs to come up with innovative solutions which aren’t just about how far you are from their exchange, which they built back in the 1970s,” he said. “With the electricity power grid, you have main stations and then substations. Maybe something along those lines is needed to deliver a broadband network suitable for people who want to live good lives in rural locations.

“I’d like them to think on a decade-to-decade basis. Ultimately, we we need a network that everyone can use. This pandemic has brought that into focus.”

Openreach points out that the number of people in the UK still struggling on broadband speeds below 10Mbps is low – by its estimate, 600,000 premises across the UK.

Page with half a woman's face downloading slowly

How do I get better broadband?

  • In the first instance, ask your provider whether you can have an upgrade or check what’s available
  • There are plenty of alternative operators offering rural fibre around the country – a good starting place is the website for the independent network providers.
  • A new scheme, Universal Service Obligation, (USO) allows anyone with broadband below 10Mbps to ask BT for an upgrade. The first £3,400 of the cost is paid for them
  • Openreach has a Community Fibre Partnership, which allows people to club together with their neighbours to apply for a quote
  • You may be eligible for fixed wireless broadband – here is a list of some of the providers – or able to receive 4G or 5G from your mobile operator
Mike Hooper outside his house
image captionMike Hooper lives in a rural setting but found the quote for fast broadband laughable

Mike Hooper lives in the heart of the English countryside, about 3km from Grizebeck, in Cumbria. He applied under USO to find out how much it would cost to bring fibre broadband to his street – and was quoted £152,821 for installation.

He said the quote, which was for six properties, made him laugh.

“It’s ridiculous. There is no way we can afford that,” he said.

Unlike in the case of Mr Brett, his letter – from BT rather than Openreach – did at least break down the costs:

  • Civil-engineering work, digging up roads and cutting trees, made up 68% of the total
  • Cabling made up 24%
  • Costs associated with delivering broadband to six different properties represented 8%

BT signed off the letter with an apologetic note: “We appreciate this is a lot of money.”

“From what I can tell they only have to drape some cables across a telegraph pole. I asked for a more detailed breakdown but they told me it would be anti-competitive,” Mr Hooper told the BBC.

Mr Hooper has tried other avenues. A rural community broadband group, B4RN, has provided fibre to lots of Cumbrian homes. But to make it cost-effective, it needed more than 1,000 occupiers to agree to installation.

Rallying even a few neighbours can be a frustrating process, said Mr Brett.

“BT relies on people getting communities together but it is difficult to get a consensus.”

“I tried to get the whole street involved, and people were interested up to the point that they actually have to pay for it,” he said.

Fast cables overlay on a town
image captionThe government is ploughing billions into an ambitious plan to get 1Gb broadband to everyone by 2025

The government is planning to inject £5bn towards an ambitious goal of delivering 1Gb broadband to everyone by 2025.

“We are waiting with bated breath and hope to see this scheme, which is subject to ministerial approval, in place by the end of the year,” said Mr Bateman.

Meanwhile, the message for Mr Brett and Mr Hooper remains unsatisfactory.

“Our desire is to get broadband to everyone but the costs are very real, and without government intervention, quotes will remain high,” he said.

For Mr Brett, it feels that there is something of postcode lottery about where fibre goes and what it costs.

He claims that a friend of his, who lives in a remote Welsh valley, received fibre broadband from BT, with speeds of 150Mbps, with no up-front costs.

“They can get it to a Welsh village in the middle of nowhere but they can’t get it to Wisbech,” he said. “It’s not good enough, really.”