Advances and Questions for SpaceX, OneWeb 'Big LEO' Broadband Satellite Constellations

June 22, 2015
By: Doug Mohney

SpaceX (News - Alert) and OneWeb engaged in a symbolic tit-for-tat last week in their respective quests to build large scale, low-flying broadband satellite networks. Word leaked out that SpaceX has filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC (News - Alert)) to fly three demonstration satellites while OneWeb made a big splash announcement with Airbus on a paper commitment to build over 900 satellites. But there's still holes in OneWeb's bigger plan.

SpaceX is seeking permission to fly six to eight test and demonstration satellites, with the first two satellites "MicroSat-1a" and "MicroSat-1b" to be put into orbit in 2016 on a company Falcon 9 rocket. The satellites will fly around 388 miles above the Earth—a stone's throw away compared to most current geosynchronous communications satellites parked at around 22,500 miles away, and one free from lag. Three broadband array test ground stations—Tesla HQ, SpaceX HQ, and SpaceX's new satellite factory in Redmond, Washington—will get a crack once a day or so for about 10 minutes to send and receive Ku-band data.

The initial demonstration satellites are laying the ground work for a massive low-orbiting network of over 4,000 satellites to provide broadband services.  Part of the offering will be to underserved/not-served areas, but Elon Musk has suggested the network could offer speeds and reduced network hops that could compete with terrestrial fiber.  Exactly how fast and what spectrum Musk will use for his operational network are open questions at this point.

OneWeb announced it is forming a joint venture with Airbus for the design and manufacture of its satellites. Each OneWeb satellite is expected to weigh less than 150 kilograms (331 pounds). The first 10 satellites would be built at Airbus facilities in Toulouse, France with a dedicated plant in the United States created to handle full series production of the 900 satellites constellation.  

Image via Shutterstock

Several satellites would be built per day on the production line.  Cost per satellite is unknown, as is who will be funding the construction of a satellite plant in the U.S.  Airbus, as a French company,  may find it difficult to get French export money to build a dedicated facility in America. 

Areas where OneWeb appears to be ahead of SpaceX, is in spectrum licensing, hardware prototypes, and partnerships. OneWeb has secured licensing for Ku-band spectrum, but it needs to put up a satellite or two at some point to effectively secure its claim under current international regulatory practices. The company has shown hardware mockups for low-cost ground stations and vehicles, expanding the utility and potential customer base from underserved into public safety and aviation usage.

Investors in OneWeb include Qualcomm (News - Alert) and the Virgin Group. The company has also announced aviation partnerships with Honeywell and Rockwell Collins, putting the company on track to compete with other satellite providers. Honeywell (News - Alert) will be providing "Internet of Things" services, using OneWeb to stream maintenance data from engines and other aircraft equipment to the ground, weather and navigation data to pilots, and supplying broadband services to passengers.  Rockwell Collins will be the exclusive provider of satellite communications terminals for OneWeb services. 

Edited by Dominick Sorrentino