OneWeb Is Back, But Will The OneWeb Constellation Return to Africa? 

In March 2020, OneWeb, a global communications company building a capability to deliver broadband satellite internet services to a geographically global demographic, filed for bankruptcy. By November 2020, the company officially came out of bankruptcy to become a competitor in the global satellite broadband market once again. 

 

OneWeb’s emergence from bankruptcy promises to enhance internet connectivity across the world, particularly in underserved areas. The company uses nanosatellites to provide global connectivity, assuring a constellation of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites. 

In 2019, OneWeb raised a total of about USD3.4 billion in funding from investors such as SoftBank Group Corp., Qualcomm Technologies Inc., and the government of Rwanda. The Rwandan Government, seeking to improve connectivity in rural areas, sought to capitalize on OneWeb’s constellation as the company launched its first six satellites. The country’s commitment to OneWeb was meant to motivate Rwanda’s growing space/satellite technology aspirations. OneWeb’s aspirations at that point were also Rwanda’s aspirations.

This was however unsuccessful, as OneWeb soon went bankrupt.

OneWeb’s current constellation projections

OneWeb emerging from bankruptcy was funded by the Government of the United Kingdom and Bharti enterprises owned by Sunil Mittal. Both parties administered USD500 million each as the stake for the revival of the company. As the new Executive Chairman of the company, Sunil Mittal said the company would need more money, between USD2 billion to USD2.5 billion, to complete its constellation, adding to its 74 satellites in orbit. The company will launch another round of 36 satellites in December, cumulating its in-orbit fleet to 110 satellites. Additionally, it will begin commercial connectivity services to the UK and the Arctic region in late 2021, and Sunil Mittal aims for global coverage in 2022, with 650 satellites in orbit. The UK government Secretary, Alok Sharma said the company would provide a new source of broadband connectivity for businesses, communities, and governments around the world, unlocking digital services and applications in a wide range of locations that historically have not had access to low latency broadband connectivity.

Will the new constellation cover Africa? 

It is projected that by the year 2050, Africa will become host to more than half of the world’s population; therefore, the need for internet connectivity on the continent will rise exceedingly. The cost of having a share of this growing market comes with the necessity to create viable solutions to the continent’s internet connectivity. Bharti’s Airtel is one of the significant surviving mobile operators in India with services across Africa, and they will consolidate on the established market to promote OneWeb. Other companies are also making attempts to have a slice of this economy, including EUTELSAT KONNECT satellite communications, expected to cover 74% of the countries in Africa by delivering large-scale internet coverage at a speed of up to 100 MBPS.

The African continent has a young population that is contributing to the fast-growing rate of internet usage; the need for communication appreciates by the day, with the need for satellite television services, as well as fixed and mobile satellite services. 

At present, only about 47.1% of the African population have access to good internet, the lowest for any continent. While fibre broadband comes as the most popular for internet connectivity, landlocked countries like Rwanda, South Sudan, Swaziland, Uganda and Zambia suffer direly, as providers groan under expensive fibre connectivity rates. These challenges will be overcome through satellite broadband connectivity. 

OneWeb in the past, targeted high-end markets, including governments and enterprises, to offer a high-speed, low latency connectivity solution. This projection might not be changing soon, especially with Bharti’s cemented position in African Markets. 

One of such problems that could alter OneWeb’s ambition of Global connectivity remains as Nathan de Ruiter, Euroconsult managing director of Canada proposes: whether OneWeb will adopt the original satellite design, and how much capital will be needed to finish building and to launch the constellations. As other broadband services arise, will OneWeb pivot on target markets with extra services? And how will it accelerate terminal development to meet the timelines it has set? While these questions remain unanswered, one can only assume that Bharti’s existing interest in the African market will play an important role.

With launching operations resuming by December 2020, OneWeb’s global network will include gateway stations around the world, and a range of user terminals to provide connectivity services for mobile and fixed communications. The terminals will be compatible with the offing needs of the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G, which will serve the African market. 

While it might take some time to return to the African market, OneWeb will most likely set out, regardless, as it faces competition with other emerging players in the market such as SpaceX.