OneWeb strikes back after launching last set of satellites

OneWeb’s chairman said it proved “naysayers” wrong after it launched the latest batch of satellites needed for global coverage.

Sunil Bharti Mittal has said Britain’s satellite business is “back on track” after launches from a Russian site in Kazakhstan were canceled after Ukraine’s invasion last year – at a cost of more than £250million.

“I have to say that the situation was very grim at the time,” Mittal said.

Shoot for the stars: Launches from India helped the OneWeb bounce back after last year's launches were canceled following Ukraine's invasion - at a cost of more than £250million

Shoot for the stars: Launches from India helped the OneWeb bounce back after last year’s launches were canceled following Ukraine’s invasion – at a cost of more than £250million

It was the latest setback for the company, which previously went bust before being bailed out by the government in a deal backed by ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former adviser, Dominic Cummings.

The recent launch of 36 satellites from India brings the total constellation in orbit to 618 and should mean it should soon be able to offer global broadband coverage, a company spokesman said.

OneWeb, a rival of Elon Musk’s Starlink network, operates low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites aimed at providing access to high-speed internet where traditional ground infrastructure is difficult to reach.

Applications include broadband on aircraft and parts of the third world and in the most remote corners of the UK.

Mittal, 65, said the suspension of launches from Kazakhstan put “a lot of pressure on the company,” costing it hundreds of millions of dollars and setting it back by eight or nine months.

But the completion of the last launch over the weekend — its third this year — means OneWeb will have 618 satellites in orbit.

A total of 588 are needed to keep the network running, with the rest as backups in case something needs to be replaced or repaired.

When the UK bailed out OneWeb in 2020, it took a 20 per cent stake for £420m, a deal that came through despite reported opposition from senior government officials at the time.

Pressure: OneWeb chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal (pictured) said the UK's satellite business was'back on track'.

Pressure: OneWeb chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal (pictured) said the UK’s satellite business was ‘back on track’.

A merger deal was agreed last year that will result in it becoming part of Paris-listed Eutelsat – although the government will retain a “golden share” and the deal, which is due to be completed shortly, will also result in that the company eventually obtains a secondary listing in London.

Mittal said the government took a “bold step” to support her, but it has now repaid that trust after raising billions from new investors, giving her a cushion that has helped her weather the backlash from the mitigate the Ukraine war.

“There were clear naysayers [who said] This company would never be able to provide global services with the limited resources it has,” he said.

“We did that and now everything is ready to launch global services.”

Mittal said OneWeb “will be able to provide what has been lacking for a long time”.

The aim is to offer Internet access that works both at high speed and with low latency, i.e. its reaction is not delayed when it is required for live interactions, for example. Oil rigs, ocean-going ships and airplanes could benefit, the chairman added.

“Gone are the days when you had a very sluggish nature of broadband availability on airplanes.”

The test results were “absolutely stunning,” Mittal said, adding: “Deserts, forests, mountains – the Himalayas – hard-to-reach areas will all gradually be covered. We have something very, very special planned.

As in any other industry, there will be competition and that is to be expected. Starlink is a serious player in this market and has launched thousands of satellites and offers services in most parts of the world. So we have some catching up to do.

“But I’m happy to report that demand appears to be very resilient.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means that, along with China and North Korea, it will not be a market for OneWeb’s service.

But the company also wants to do business in other parts of the world, from Canada and the US to Europe, the Middle East, Australia, India, Africa and Latin America. Potential customers include aid organizations and security forces.

“The most important and critical task of getting satellites into space is now behind us,” Mittal said. “The rest of the work is now a matter of a few months until global coverage becomes a reality.”

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