OneWeb continues to study offering navigation services

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Updated April 9 with comment from U.K. Space Agency.

WASHINGTON — The new chief executive of OneWeb says the company is still pursuing some kind of navigation capability for its broadband satellite constellation, although a full-fledged service may have to wait until a second-generation system.

Neil Masterson, a former executive with Thomson Reuters who was named chief executive of OneWeb when it emerged from bankruptcy in November 2020, said the company was planning to demonstrate a navigation service later this year, working with unnamed British organizations. The British government, along with Indian telecom company Bharti Global, acquired OneWeb out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year.

“We expect to have a demo capability available later this year, and we’re working with certain bodies in the U.K. to advance our thinking there and help design that,” he said during a session of the Satellite 2021 LEO Digital Forum April 7. “We think that there’s something that can be done with the existing Gen 1 design. It’s a bit premature to talk about that right now, but we’re quite focused on that.”

His comments echo those made by OneWeb’s executive chairman, Sunil Bharti Mittal, who said in December that the first-generation satellites could provide a timing service, but that a full-fledged positioning, navigating and timing (PNT) system would have to wait until a second generation of satellites. “We have the ambition of providing PNT services through OneWeb,” he said. “We believe we will be onto this path in the coming years.

Masterson also said that a full PNT system would have to wait until a second generation of the constellation. “To be a real alternative to GPS, we’ll have to wait until the second generation,” he said. “It is possible to provide some form of PNT services that are good enough, and certainly able to provide a form of redundancy. And that is where we will start from.”

The British government’s decision to partner with Bharti on acquiring OneWeb has been linked in the minds of many in the industry in the government’s desire for its own satellite navigation system. After exiting the European Union, the British government can no longer access secure Galileo services sued by European militaries. The British government studied previously proposals to develop a standalone satellite navigation system, but last September expanded that work “to consider additional more innovative solutions” without ruling out a satellite network, a U.K. Space Agency spokesman said April 9.

Using OneWeb for navigation services would face many challenges, including the fact that it does not use frequencies reserved for satellite navigation services like GPS and Galileo. There have been, however, studies about using low Earth orbit satellite constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink to provide alternative navigation services.

Masterson offered no clues in his presentation about when OneWeb might pursue a second-generation system that could include a dedicated PNT service or other capabilities. The company’s focus is on deploying its initial constellation of 648 satellites to provide broadband services, which the company expects to complete next year. Service in polar regions north of 50 degrees latitude could begin later this year after three more Soyuz launches of 36 satellites each.

“We’re starting to think about it already,” he said of a second-generation system. “I would like to hold off a little while before we make firm decisions on that because I really want to hear from our customers about what they want.”

OneWeb, besides continuing to deploy those first-generation satellites, still needs to raise about $1 billion to complete the system. “We feel very confident about finding the remaining funding,” he said. He declined to offer a schedule for raising that funding.