OneWeb constellation infographic
OneWeb intends to cover the Earth with a constellation of 700 low-Earth-orbiting smallsats built by Airbus Defence and Space. Credit: Airbus video still

PARIS — Satellite fleet operators fear that start-up OneWeb Ltd.’s 700 low-orbiting satellites will disrupt their established businesses by unintentionally interfering with millions of user antennas installed around the equator.

Some of these companies said they hope their concerns are resolved by OneWeb’s stated commitment to abide by international regulatory guidelines on the operation of low-orbiting satellites using Ku-band radio frequencies also used by almost all of the world’s biggest fleet operators.

Others said they are worried that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a global frequency and orbital-slot regulatory notoriously lacking in enforcement power, will not be up to the task if interference develops after OneWeb is deployed in orbit between 2017 and 2019.

Aware of what seems to be a groundswell of concern about their system expressed here Sept. 14-18 at the World Satellite Business Week conference, an annual gathering of industry, OneWeb officials repeatedly said they will not interfere with satellites in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers over the equator.

OneWeb founder Greg Wyler said the company would be filing, in December, an ITU S-1503 submission that will allow regulators and geostationary-satellite operators to assess, with precision, OneWeb’s conformity with ITU rules forbidding interference with geostationary satellites by satellites in non-geostationary. OneWeb’s satellites will orbit at around 1,200 kilometers in altitude.

In a Sept. 15 interview, Wyler said the company’s Progressive Pitch technology is designed to modify the orientation and power level of the OneWeb satellites as they pass over the equator so that they do not disturb the millions of satellite dishes pointed toward the geostationary satellites.

“We want to make allies of the established operators,” Wyler said. “It would be crazy for us to interfere with them.”

The relevant metric is called equivalent power-flux density (EPFD), an ITU requirement developed in the 1990s as two other non-geostationary-orbit systems, Teledesic in Ka-band and SkyBridge in Ku-band, sought regulatory approval for large constellations of satellites.

Geostationary satellite operators ultimately were persuaded — or at least they accept a hard-fought ITU conclusion — that low-orbiting satellites could in fact adjust their operations to avoid interference around the equator and should be granted regulatory approval.

Brian Holz, OneWeb’s vice president for satellite, launch and fleet operations, said that until the company filed to the ITU the required documents, geostationary operators could make no allegations about threatened interference.

That has not prevented established fleet operators from beginning to apply pressure, ultimately intended for the ITU, to assure a coordinated industry response in the event OneWeb transgresses the regulations.

“We spent at least three weeks prior to this conference evaluating all the public-domain information about OneWeb,” said Tom Choi, chief executive of fleet operator ABS of Bermuda. “Obviously they have to operate on a non-interference basis. But from every calculation that we are doing, we can’t see how they can avoid creating interference.”

Choi said the OneWeb satellites will be emitting at about the same power levels as geostationary-orbit satellites, meaning that around the equator, “we could be looking at hours of downtime” per day.

“I think they need to better explain to the global satellite industry how they are going to avoid doing that,” Choi said. “Our math shows that it is going to be very difficult, even with the progressive pitch they are talking about. At certain latitudes it’s going to be virtually impossible to avoid interference.”

Among OneWeb’s partners and investors is fleet operator Intelsat of Luxembourg and the United States, which has as many Ku-band customers around the equator as anyone else.

Intelsat Chief Executive Stephen Spengler said he understood the concerns of geostationary satellite operators, especially since OneWeb has not yet produced its detailed operational plans to the ITU.

“There are power limits that are well defined at different latitudes and our view is that OneWeb will be operating within those ITU regulations,” Spengler said, adding that Intelsat would not have partnered with OneWeb, and invested $25 million in it, if it thought Intelsat’s customers would see their signals jammed.

One of the goals of the Intelsat-OneWeb partnership is to be able to hand off customers easily between OneWeb and Intelsat satellites. Spengler said this is one solution for OneWeb when its satellites cross over the equator. “So there are opportunities for geo operators, ourselves and others, to participate” in the system, he said.

Other satellite operators privately questioned this idea, saying that if the interference is so bad as to require a handoff to an Intelsat satellite, then OneWeb’s business model would need too many such handoffs – and need to pay Intelsat and others accordingly — to close its business case.

Huang Baozhong, vice president of Hong Kong-based fleet operator APT Satellite Co., and William Wade, chief executive of AsiaSat, also of Hong Kong, both said they are worried that OneWeb will provoke interference.

Michel de Rosen, chief executive of Paris-based Eutelsat, said the industry has too often dealt with unintentional interference.

“It can happen because there has been insufficient respect for one player by another player,” de Rosen said Sept. 15. “So whenever a newcomer arrives to the game, it is the duty of the newcomer to make sure his initiative will not hurt the quality of service that our customers have a right to expect.

“We are looking at this topic now at Eutelsat because we cannot simply hope it will work,” de Rosen said of the OneWeb system. “It has to be an issue that will be solved before the constellation is operational.”

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.