WASHINGTON — OneWeb plans to start offering broadband from space in the Arctic region this fall, a capability the company hopes will attract U.S. military and other national government customers.
“Our focus now is Alaska and the Arctic,” OneWeb’s head of government services Dylan Browne told SpaceNews.
Since OneWeb came back from bankruptcy in November “we’ve been busy setting up engagements with the U.S. government,” Browne said. The company is now owned by the British government and Indian telecom company Bharti Global.
OneWeb is racing to provide coverage in the Arctic where currently only Iridium offers satellite-based communications services. Following the latest launch of 36 satellites on March 25, OneWeb has 146 in operation. Browne said the company needs to deploy three more batches of 36 satellites to cover areas north of 50 degrees latitude, which would include Alaska and much of the Arctic region. The company is planning a constellation of about 650 satellites for global coverage.
OneWeb satellites orbit around the poles. “Every time we put a satellite up we get a concentration above the poles which is really serendipitous because from a government and DoD perspective, that’s an area of geopolitical interest,” Browne said.
“LEO scratches an itch for some of the new and emerging challenges the Department of Defense has,” he added.
The Arctic has become an area of strategic interest where melting ice caps have set off a race for resources, and Russia and China are trying to grow their influence. The ability to provide coverage in the Arctic gives OneWeb an advantage over competitors, said Browne. “It sounds a bit cliche but timing is everything.”
The demand for satellite-based communications in the Arctic is coming from both the commercial and government sides, Browne said. Industries like oil and gas are target customers, but the immediate requests are coming from governments, he said. “We literally just got a request from the office of the prime minister of Finland,” he added. “We have a strong engagement with Norway. This week we did a briefing for Icelandic regulators. They need high speed, low latency satellite connectivity for their maritime patrols.”
OneWeb on Friday announced an agreement with satellite communications integrator and reseller TrustComm Inc. to distribute services to U.S. military users in northern latitudes.
TrustComm has an operations center at Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base in Houston, Texas, and holds a number of DoD contract vehicles to provide managed satellite services. Browne said the U.S. Navy is one TrustComm’s major customers and will be using OneWeb’s services to provide connectivity to ships at sea.
The coverage in the Arctic initially will be only for fixed sites. Starting in 2022 mobile services will be available, said Browne. That’s important for Navy and Coast Guard units that will be patrolling the waters.
To increase its footprint in the U.S. military, OneWeb is hoping to get a contract from the Air Force Research Laboratory to participate in a program known as Defense Experimentation Using the Commercial Space Internet, or DEUCSI. AFRL already has signed up several companies to help figure out how commercial broadband services would be integrated with military platforms.
OneWeb also plans to compete for DoD contracts managed by the U.S. Space Force’s Commercial Satellite Communications Office. A solicitation for LEO satellite services is expected to be released this summer.
The company also wants to work with DoD’s Space Development Agency even though OneWeb’s network does not have inter-satellite links, which SDA requires so data can be moved around the world without having to send it back to ground stations. Browne said OneWeb’s current generation of spacecraft was not designed to have inter-satellites links but the company plans to incorporate that technology in the future.