OneWeb and SpaceX rush to stream Internet to the Arctic

Rival satellite Internet companies OneWeb and SpaceX are competing for lucrative deals to provide broadband Internet to the northernmost latitudes of the Earth. OneWeb’s launch of 36 satellites this week brought it a little closer to its goal of broadcasting the Internet to the region by the end of the year. SpaceX’s Starlink, which is already providing the Internet to thousands of consumers through a beta program, is targeting the same area.

Billions of dollars in government funding are at stake for companies that can connect the region. The Arctic is a near-broadband desert for the US military, and the UK is willing to spend a lot to connect rural areas to the internet.

SpaceX is reportedly considering a portion of the UK’s new $ 6.9 billion Project Gigabit program, which aims to provide “ultra-fast” broadband internet to areas with little or no internet access. OneWeb is also in talks with the program, said the company’s head of government affairs Chris McLaughlin. The Verge. OneWeb, a UK-based company that was rescued from bankruptcy last year by the British government and Indian telecoms giant Bharti Global, believes it has an advantage in that race.

McLaughlin dismissed SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s foray into the UK rural internet show as “a classic Mr. Musk piece.” Musk’s offer for the subsidies, McLaughlin said, “tries to suggest that there is a huge pot of gold waiting in the English fields that he can collect.”

“We have also had conversations with [UK Minister for Digital Infrastructure Matt Warman], and actually with his boss, and actually with his boss’s boss, about what could be done with OneWeb, ”McLaughlin said in an interview, predicting that the Gigabit awards would go to numerous telecom providers that will work together. OneWeb hopes to “restore confidence in the UK government” in its bid for rural Internet subsidies, he said, reciprocating the government’s help in pulling OneWeb out of bankruptcy.

A Soyuz rocket launches 36 OneWeb satellites to orbit from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East.
Image: Roscosmos

“5 to 50”

Wednesday night’s launch of 36 Internet satellites put OneWeb’s total constellation at 146. The company’s initial plans to cover the Arctic with the Internet by 2020 were thwarted by bankruptcy. Now, you have a new goal of “5 to 50”: a countdown of five launches to allow coverage everywhere north of “50” degrees latitude. A December launch marked the first, Wednesday’s launch was the second, and the company is aiming to reach the fifth launch in June.

Unlike the constellation SpaceX, which orbits the planet closer along equatorial lines, OneWeb orbits from pole to pole, meaning that the traditionally quiet northern and southern regions of the internet will soon be an intersection of satellites for the company’s network. McLaughlin said the next generation of OneWeb satellites will likely have optical links, allowing the satellites to communicate with each other in space. That could reduce the need for expensive ground stations in hard-to-reach areas in the Arctic.

OneWeb has not released designs for user terminals or monthly pricing plans, and its planned constellation of 648 satellites is much smaller than SpaceX’s. But “less is more,” says McLaughlin. Satellites at higher altitudes can transmit to wider swaths of Earth (imagine shining a flashlight on a table, and the cone of light widens the further you move it). The downside to satellites at higher altitudes is higher latency, or the time it takes for data to transfer between the satellite and its destination.

SpaceX’s arctic targets

SpaceX, on the other hand, is further ahead with its satellite network, fueled by hefty rounds of funding and cash from its billionaire founder. It has launched more than 1,300 Starlink satellites into a lower orbit than the OneWeb constellation, and that’s just a fraction of its planned large 30,000 constellation. This year, the company launched an open beta phase for consumers in the US, UK, Canada, Germany and New Zealand, offering a Starlink terminal kit for $ 499 and $ 99 per month thereafter at least 10,000 users, many of whom are excited about the network. speeds of 120 megabits per second.

SpaceX won last-minute regulatory approval to launch its first 10 Starlink satellites into polar orbit in January, and is lobbying the Federal Communications Commission for permission to put dozens more satellites in polar orbits, where it can “provide the same service. of high-quality broadband to the most remote areas of Alaska, “he said in a document.

SpaceX sees that area as particularly valuable to the US military, and the company has been courting the Pentagon in recent years. As the US Northern Command explores business options to bring the Internet faster to the Arctic, an increasingly contested domain between the US and Russia, Pentagon officials have visited SpaceX (and OneWeb) facilities on the way. And the Air Force’s Global Lightning program, which in 2018 awarded SpaceX $ 28 million to test Starlink on military aircraft, is approaching a new phase of handing out contracts for satellite internet in Arctic regions.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk meets in Colorado with former NORTHCOM and NORAD commander Ret. General Terrence O’Shaughnessy (right) and Royal Canadian Air Force Lieutenant General Christopher Coates (left) in April 2019.
Image: US Northern Command

The military interest in a better Internet in the Arctic became clear last year, when Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, former commander of the US Northern Command, petitioned Congress for $ 130 million for a polar communications program that would leverage Starlink and OneWeb. Months later, General O’Shaughnessy withdrew to consult privately with SpaceX, according to two people familiar with the move, who spoke anonymously to discuss personnel matters. As the Wall street journal reported last year, it’s unclear if O’Shaughnessy is fully employed by SpaceX or a paid contractor. SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment. O’Shaughnessy, through a spokesperson, could not be reached for comment.

An increasingly important Arctic

In recent years, the U.S. military has been quick to rethink its strategy in the Arctic as a rapidly changing climate melts the region’s polar ice caps, redrawing key shipping routes and opening new ones for ships and submarines. The push for broadband in the Arctic is part of that change in strategy. Commanders need better communications and Internet access for ships and planes now that the region’s barriers to movement are literally melting away, shaping a new era of competition between the United States, Russia and China.

“It’s been an important region for a while, but it’s growing in importance,” says Chris Quilty, partner and satellite industry analyst at Quilty Analytics. “Most of the communications satellites that exist today fly over the equator and cannot see the polar region; it is too high an altitude with the curvature of the Earth.”

Some existing satellites in higher orbits provide data services to the polar regions, but they are limited, especially for the growing demand for data from the military. OneWeb and the satellite network proposed by former satellite operator Telesat, which will partially orbit the Earth from pole to pole, aim to fill the Arctic data gap. SpaceX is awaiting FCC approval to send 348 more satellites into polar orbit, realizing the demand from “federal broadband users for whom there could be significant national security benefits.”

As SpaceX’s Starlink enters polar orbit, the already approved orbital design for the OneWeb constellation gives it an arctic advantage. For OneWeb, “all satellites cross the polar region, so the greatest concentration of their capacity is in the polar regions,” says Quilty. “So that opens up an opportunity to go from being in a position where there is a scarcity of data, where there will be a lot of data available.”

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