OneWeb Satellite Broadband Service: Big Win in Alaska?

May 31, 2017
By: Doug Mohney

Broadband cloud satellite provider OneWeb has signed up its first reseller in Alaska.  The company may have a winning combination of features to give it a big chunk of the market in the 49th state and in other rural areas.

Alaska Communications (News - Alert) has signed a non-exclusive memorandum of understanding (MOU) with OneWeb – whatever that might mean.  According to the joint press release from Alaska and OneWeb, the new high-speed, low latency broadband service will be available in 2019 to "every Alaska home, school, business and community center."

If there's a state that defines "rural access headaches," it's Alaska. With a population of around 750,000 people and the lowest population density per square mile in the U.S., there are a couple of major cities and a whole lot of wilderness in between, with few major roads.

Compounding matters for traditional geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO) communication satellites tasked with providing broadband services, Alaska is far north of the equator, at the edge of coverage.  Since radio signals are traveling at a significant angle and through more atmosphere, satellite dishes further north have to be bigger for reliable reception, on the order of two meters or so, and need more powerful electronics.  In comparison, broadband satellite service to the "Lower 48" can be supported by a relatively small dish of a meter or less in size, easily installed top of the roof or side of an apartment building.

OneWeb's constellation uses hundreds of low-flying satellites constantly circling the world, insuring around-the-clock coverage.  Since OneWeb satellites fly directly overhead at a few hundred miles above the earth, anyone on the ground will be able to use a smaller antenna of around a meter or less in size,  

Smaller satellite antennas mean lower transportation and installation costs, with the ability to not only serve fixed locations such as a town or house, but to also deliver services onboard planes and ships – b oth key transportation links in Alaska – as well as ground vehicles.

Finally, any existing broadband satellite customer will gain benefit from OneWeb's low-latency service.  Traditional GEO satellites parked 22,000-plus miles above the Earth add a couple hundred milliseconds of delay moving signals back and forth from ground to satellite and back, followed by routing through a centralized satellite gateway.  OneWeb's low-flying satellites are expected to add under 20 milliseconds of latency to a typical connection, with signals relayed more quickly between satellites when possible rather than routed through a centralized gateway and back into the traditional telecommunications network if not necessary.

Softbank (News - Alert)'s investment in OneWeb also creates ties between it and Sprint.  Remote communities without cellular phone service may become new Sprint customers by using the OneWeb network for cellular backhaul network, negating the need for fiber.

OneWeb's first satellites will be launched in 2018, with the final total to be at least 650 or so satellites for a production network covering the entire globe.  While OneWeb's initial pitch was to deliver broadband services to everyone everywhere, the company has more recently fine-tuned its initial marketing efforts towards paying customers in the first responder community, commercial and military aviation, and mobile operators.