OneWeb forges Indian distribution partnership

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TAMPA, Fla. — OneWeb has signed a deal to distribute broadband in India through a local partner as it hopes to get regulatory permission for its low Earth orbit services this year.

The megaconstellation operator said Jan. 20 it has struck a six-year distribution partnership with Hughes Communications India Private Ltd (HCIPL), a recently formed joint venture between Indian telco Bharti Airtel and U.S.-based Hughes Network Systems. 

Bharti Airtel is owned by Bharti Global, which is OneWeb’s largest shareholder, and Hughes is a minority investor in OneWeb that is also developing gateways for the operator in India and elsewhere. 

HCIPL is India’s biggest satellite service operator with more than 200,000 VSATs in the country, the joint venture owners said Jan. 4 when they announced the company’s formation.

Some 135,000 of those VSATs come from Hughes which owns about two-thirds of HCIPL and the rest come from Airtel, Hughes Network Systems president Pradman Kaul told SpaceNews in an interview.

The VSATs currently connect to satellites in geostationary orbit (GEO), but Kaul said HCIPL plans to introduce multi-orbit capabilities once OneWeb gains regulatory clearances to operate in the country.

SpaceX’s LEO broadband operator Starlink also requires regulatory permission to deploy services in India. 

Sanjay Bhargava, Starlink’s former lead executive in India, said late last year that the company hoped to have applied for a commercial license on or before Jan. 31, 2022. Bhargava recently announced he had resigned from the company, shortly after India’s government ordered SpaceX to stop preselling Starlink until it gives regulatory approval. 

For OneWeb, Kaul said regulatory approval in India “should happen hopefully in the next three to six months.”

He pointed to broad transformation across India’s regulatory landscape as rules are being relaxed to encourage investments in the space industry.

Bharti only owns about a third of U.K.-based OneWeb, and its other shareholders are based outside of India. 

Kaul said that means OneWeb is set to become one of the first foreign satellite operators permitted to serve India on a long-term basis.

Foreign operators are sometimes allowed to lease capacity temporarily to India’s Department of Space, when the country cannot meet demand with domestically operated satellites.

However, Pradman said “the conditions are very onerous and don’t encourage investment.”

He said the shifting regulatory landscape is encouraging Hughes Network Systems to explore a high-throughput GEO satellite for India, similar to the company’s Jupiter 3 for North America that an undisclosed launch provider is slated to loft in the second half of 2022.

“We definitely will start looking at that, but it’s not the most important thing right now,” Pradman said.

“Right now we want to integrate the LEO OneWeb capability with our existing GEO network, and make them all play together and start offering services.”

OneWeb has so far deployed more than 60% of the 648 satellites in its planned constellation, with the remaining satellites slated to launch this year for global connectivity services.

The company has announced a raft of distribution partners worldwide to expand its services. 

Most recently, Australian telecoms carrier Field Solutions said Jan. 19 it will offer OneWeb’s services to rural, regional, and remote Australia under a distribution partnership.