OneWeb, SpaceX optimistic about cheap user terminals

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WASHINGTON — Executives from SpaceX and OneWeb say their companies are working intensely on user terminals so customers will be able to get internet connectivity from their respective low Earth orbit constellations.

Both companies expect to start regional service in high northern latitudes by the end of the year — OneWeb with around 300 out of 650 satellites, and SpaceX with around 1,500 of an eventual 12,000 satellites — with global service following in 2021.

Dylan Browne, president of OneWeb’s government business unit, said the company is mirroring its satellite manufacturing approach of establishing a broad network of suppliers to build components in mass.

“We have a similar supply chain discussion around our user terminals, producing in such a volume — literally thousands a month — that we can’t have just one vendor,” Browne said.

OneWeb expects to have user terminals between $1,000 to $1,500 for community Wi-Fi services, Browne said.

Community Wi-Fi hotspots are often used to connect internet cafes and public spaces where dozens of devices connect simultaneously to the internet.

OneWeb’s “aspirational” goal for the core antenna chipsets needed to create user terminals for commercial aircraft is $150,000, Browne said.

“That would be about half of what the market price is currently,” he said. “I think we can do that.”

OneWeb has launched 40 satellites to date and has another 34 scheduled to launch later this month. Airbus and OneWeb are building satellites through a joint venture called OneWeb Satellites that Browne said reached a peak output of three satellites in a single day in February.

SpaceX, whose satellites are in a lower orbit that requires more satellites to achieve global coverage, has launched 302 satellites and has another 60 launching March 15, said Jonathan Hofeller, vice president of Starlink commercial sales at SpaceX.

In contrast to OneWeb, SpaceX is building its user terminals in-house, he said.

“The fact that we are manufacturing this in-house does give us the distinct advantage of being able to offer a very low priced terminal,” Hofeller said. “We do not have pricing at this point, but it is something that we know is critical to making this business successful.”

Browne said OneWeb has selected an integration partner for a “compact” electronically steered antenna, though he didn’t name the partner.

OneWeb has described parabolic dish antennas and flat electronically steered antennas as part of its intended user terminal portfolio.

Electronically steered antennas have the benefit of connecting to two or more satellites simultaneously, but have historically been too expensive for consumers. SpaceX has so far only discussed electronically steered antennas, a technology Hofeller said is “extremely difficult” to build at consumer-ready prices.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has described Starlink user terminals as looking like a “thin, flat, round UFO on a stick,” with motors to adjust their pointing.