TAMPA, Fla. — The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has contracted low Earth orbit broadband venture OneWeb to demo managed satcom services in strategic Arctic locations.
Project prime contractor Hughes Network Systems, a OneWeb investor supplying parts of its ground segment, will test the services between certain U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) sites.
“The OneWeb constellation has been designed to enable low-latency broadband access across the globe, allowing connectivity in previously unreached areas—a capability that is ideal for tactical, multi-domain operations in the Polar region and beyond,” OneWeb head of government services Dylan Browne said in a statement.
The Department of Defense contract is part of the U.S. Air Force’s Defense Experimentation Using the Commercial Space Internet (DEUCSI) program.
An AFRL spokesperson said the contract value is about $3.4 million and is for 18 months.
OneWeb’s satellites are in polar orbits, and Browne told SpaceNews in March that this gives the company an advantage for Arctic regions of growing geopolitical interest.
Currently, only Iridium Communications boasts pole-to-pole satcom coverage.
However, SpaceX launched its first batch of Starlink LEO broadband satellites to polar orbit Jan. 24, supplementing the growing number of spacecraft it is sending to other orbits.
In December 2018, SpaceX secured a three-year, $28 million contract under the DEUCSI program to test ways the military could use Starlink.
Several other companies, including hardware providers Ball Aerospace, L3Harris, Raytheon and others, have also secured contracts under DEUCSI to explore how commercial broadband services could be integrated with military platforms.
Nearly 1,500 Starlinks are currently in orbit, following SpaceX’s latest launch of 60 satellites May 4.
SpaceX recently modified its license to operate 4,408 Starlinks at around 550 kilometers.
OneWeb has 182 of a constellation of about 650 in orbit at around 1,200 kilometers, following its latest launch April 25.
The company plans to start offering services in the Arctic region this fall after launching two more batches of 36 satellites.
U.S.-based Hughes, which is producing the company’s gateway equipment and user terminal core modules, is managing the Arctic service demos for the U.S. Air Force. It is partnering with South Korea’s Intellian, the antenna maker designing OneWeb’s user terminals.
“This opportunity reinforces the relationship between Hughes and the U.S. Air Force to ensure resilient, flexible SATCOM networks for tactical, multi-domain operations,” stated Rick Lober, vice president and general manager of the defense and intelligence systems division at Hughes.
“We look forward to partnering with OneWeb to bring LEO innovation into the military SATCOM enterprise, especially in the strategic Arctic region where connectivity has been limited—until now.”
Lober told SpaceNews in an email that it will start staging the LEO network in “the next few months” at Hughes and government locations in the U.S., before moving to the Arctic this fall.
“This particular contract covers experimentation only,” he said.
“As the system matures and other DoD users such as NORTHCOM develop specific requirements, a service contract is a possible option through various contract vehicles.”
He added: “Our understanding is the Hughes-OneWeb team will deliver the only system with high throughput service to support the strategic Artic region, 24 hours per day by the end of this year.”
The British government and Indian telecom company Bharti Global bought OneWeb out of bankruptcy last year with a $1 billion investment. In January this year, OneWeb raised $350 million from Japanese internet giant SoftBank and $50 million from Hughes.
After a $550 million investment April 27 from French satellite operator Eutelsat, OneWeb is expected to raise about $500 million this year to complete the constellation’s funding.
The article was updated May 6 with financial details about the contract.