TAMPA, Fla. — AT&T has agreed to use OneWeb’s low Earth orbit satellites to extend high-speed broadband services to areas outside its fiber footprint in the United States.

Their partnership will focus on bolstering connectivity solutions for business and government customers, while also leveraging satellites to connect hard-to-reach cell towers across the country.

AT&T provides high-speed connectivity to more than 2.5 million business in the U.S., according to the company, and more than nine million business customer sites are within 1,000 feet of its fiber network.

However, the telco highlighted the many remote areas where it is too expensive or geographically challenging to expand high-speed fiber networks.

OneWeb executive chair Sunil Bharti Mittal, who announced the agreement in his Satellite 2021 keynote Sept. 8, said the “U.S. market now has a huge distributor in the form of AT&T.”

Asked about the services AT&T will provide through the OneWeb partnership, he first highlighted the potential to provide faster and more reliable cellular backhaul. 

Higher quality cellular backhaul “will allow [AT&T] to put up base stations where none exist today,” Mittal said.

He also underlined the potential to improve AT&T’s enterprise services, as well as “the government delivery of various kinds of broadband services,” pointing to the billions in subsidies the Federal Communications Commission provides through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund as justifying OneWeb’s vision and business plan.

“That means there are still very large parts of the U.S. which remain unconnected or poorly connected,” he noted. 

Looking for more partners

Mittal said OneWeb is holding “dozens of conversations in very advanced stages” with other telecom partners.

The company had earlier announced a distributor partnership with British telco BT June 27.

Mittal is founder and chair of Indian conglomerate Bharti, a OneWeb investor that also owns a sizable India-based telecoms company called Airtel. 

He told the conference that Airtel will partner with OneWeb to cover India, Southeast Asia and many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. 

With nearly half of its 648-strong constellation deployed so far, he said OneWeb expects to launch partial services in the Northern Hemisphere in the next 60-90 days.

Mittal said Alaska “will probably go first with our services,” adding that OneWeb has also partnered with local telco Alaska Communications.

OneWeb plans to launch full commercial services in 2022, and Mittal said it expects to have signed up a telecom operator in every country as it works on gaining worldwide market access.

He highlighted stiff regulatory conditions in 30 countries in particular, of which OneWeb has been able to penetrate 12-13 of them.

“They are very large markets, some of them,” he continued.

“We need the permission to put up our … ground stations, we need the permission to use the spectrum in their countries. We need the permission to go and access the market and provide the services.”

Bharti is U.K-headquartered OneWeb’s largest investor in an international mix of shareholders that includes the British government, Japanese internet giant Softbank, French satellite operator Eutelsat, U.S.-based antenna specialist Hughes Network Systems and — more recently — South Korea’s Hanwha.

Eutelsat said Sept. 8 that it closed a $550 million equity investment in OneWeb that it announced in April.

If Bharti and Hanwha’s investments also close as expected following regulatory approvals, Eutelsat would own 17.6% of OneWeb.

OneWeb also announced Sept 8 the appointment of Air Vice-Marshal Chris Moore as vice president of international government and trade engagement to its government and regulatory affairs team.

Moore spent three decades at the U.K.’s Royal Air Force, and was the MOD’s director of operations for defence’s core IT services between 2017 and 2021.

“His sectoral knowledge, spectrum engineering, and real-time application of satellite connectivity, alongside a deep cyber-security background, are of great benefit as we roll-out our global services,” stated OneWeb CEO Neil Masterson.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...