SoftBank OneWeb Satellite Investment Makes Sprint Interesting

By Doug Mohney January 23, 2017

While OneWeb is bringing new investment and more jobs into America as it builds a mega constellation of low-flying satellites for worldwide broadband coverage, there's a key point that many have missed.  SoftBank Group, the Japanese firm that put up $1 billion for OneWeb, also owns Sprint.  Putting together OneWeb with Sprint will provide the U.S. carrier with some key advantages in the future if the two can work together.

OneWeb plans to build a 900ish low-flying network of satellites, with an expected total capacity of around 10 Terabits per second in the network.  In comparison to fiber, it doesn't sound like a lot, but network coverage will be available, to borrow a phrase from Doug Humphrey, to every tree, rock, and cow on the face of the planet.

The advantages OneWeb holds over traditional satellite networks are two-fold.  Because OneWeb’s satellites are low flying rather than positioned in geostationary orbit at over 22,000 miles away, they don't have the communications lag time introduced by a radio signal round trip of at least 44,000 miles up and back – the speed of light does matter, adding about a half a second or more of lag into communication.  The lag is annoying for voice and video communications and not great for things like real-time gaming and remote control of machinery, such as flying drones.

OneWeb may also deliver less lag than terrestrial fiber networks, depending on routing between satellites and ground stations.  The theory – yet to be demonstrated in the real world – is that RF signals are faster in space than through fiber (glass) and signals have to follow a sometimes indirect path between points A and B, depending on the fiber routes selected.  OneWeb moves information on the most direct path between satellites and points A and B on the ground, so it should be able to beat any non-optimized terrestrial network that has to go through multiple hops and carriers.

How does Sprint become a winner with OneWeb?  Since OneWeb is already focusing on service providers as a potential market, Sprint could be an anchor customer.  Sprint could use OneWeb to expand its wireless network beyond traditional fiber networks, giving it a much wider rural footprint and making it more competitive with existing AT&T and Verizon coverage.   OneWeb can allow Sprint to go places where other wireless carriers can't go, due to the economics of extending fiber.  Sprint would simply have to get one or more OneWeb terrestrial downlink sites installed into a new territory, with power and line-of-sight to the sky being the only two requirements. 

Power transmission towers, water towers, and other places become more valuable for the ability to hold a Sprint OneWeb expansion sight. To the end-user, cellular coverage looks and feels exactly the same, because OneWeb provides satellite backhaul with terrestrial (or better) performance.

A seamless phone experience regardless of location is also a boon for first responders and government agencies, as well as businesses operating outside of normal terrestrial connectivity.  OneWeb terminal equipment is small to be packaged on top of a vehicle, so stock 4G/5G cellular communications could be assured in remote locations and anywhere at sea, such as a cruise ship or oil rig.  Sprint would get OneWeb as another “tool in the tool box” when selling to enterprise and government customers.

About the only question is how closely Sprint and OneWeb might work together.  Will it be a strict, one service provider to another, relationship or will Sprint receive favored status because it and OneWeb are both owned by the same investor, SoftBank?  Stay tuned.




Edited by Alicia Young

Contributing Editor

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