OneWeb’s first satellites are launched into orbit for global internet constellation

OneWeb Arianespace Soyuz launch
A Russian-built Soyuz rocket lifts off from Arianespace’s launch complex in French Guiana, sending the first six satellites of OneWeb’s broadband constellation into space. (Arianespace via YouTube)

A Russian-built, European-launched Soyuz rocket sent the first six satellites of OneWeb’s broadband data constellation into orbit today, kicking off a years-long campaign aimed at making high-speed internet connections available to billions of people around the world.

Liftoff marked the latest milestone for the international OneWeb consortium, which is locked in a satellite broadband race with SpaceX, Telesat and other high-profile ventures. Such satellite constellations promise to provide global high-speed data services for applications ranging from emergency response to community Wi-Fi and ubiquitous voice and streaming-video coverage.

After years of preparation, today’s launch went off without a hitch at Arianespace’s launch complex in French Guiana, on South America’s east coast. Over the course of more than an hour, OneWeb’s first 325-pound satellites were deployed into 625-mile-high (1,000-kilometer-high) orbits from a cylindrical dispenser that’s been compared to a corncob.

“Tonight is a full success,” Arianespace CEO Stephane Israël declared.

Adrian Steckel, CEO of Virginia-based OneWeb, said he was “really relieved” to see the launch go so well, while noting that he would feel “a little bit of tension” as he and his teammates waited to communicate with the satellites.

OneWeb is a long way from declaring “Mission Accomplished”: It’ll take dozens more launches to fill out the full first-phase constellation of roughly 650 satellites. Hundreds more are to be added during follow-on phases.

OneWeb expects to demonstrate its satellite broadband service in 2020 and provide global, 24-hour coverage to customers starting in 2021.

Leading up to today’s launch, OneWeb has pulled together more than $2 billion in funding, led by a $1 billion investment by Japan’s SoftBank Group. Other investors include Airbus, which is playing a lead role in building OneWeb’s satellites in France and Florida, as well as Coca-Cola, Qualcomm and British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.

OneWeb has a deal with Europe’s Arianespace consortium for 21 OneWeb launches using Russian Soyuz rockets, plus separate deals with Virgin Orbit and Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

California-based SpaceX looms as OneWeb’s most prominent competitor, with a satellite development operation that’s headquartered in Redmond, Wash.

SpaceX launched two experimental satellites for its Starlink system a year ago, and CEO Elon Musk has said the first operational satellites will go into orbit this year. The company’s current timetable calls for Starlink to go operational in the 2020 time frame. Eventually, thousands of Starlink satellites could be in orbit, potentially servicing a million Earth stations.

Telesat, Canada’s biggest satellite operator, has its own plans for a broadband internet constellation that would rely on hundreds of satellites in low Earth orbit, or LEO. Last month, the company signed agreements with Blue Origin and Alphabet’s Loon aerial telecom venture to help build its network. Telesat had its first test satellite launched to LEO last year, and is expected to offer first-generation LEO broadband service in the early 2020s.

Boeing is among other companies that have been laying the regulatory groundwork for LEO satellite broadband service, but reports over the past year or two suggest that Boeing’s focus has shifted to SES’ plans for a broadband constellation in medium Earth orbit, or MEO.

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