OneWeb emerges from bankruptcy, prepares for 17 December launch

UK government and Bharti Global confirmed as new owners of low-cost satellite broadband provider, which emerges from financial woes to eye up commercial connectivity services to the UK and the Arctic region in 2021

The UK government/Bharti Global OneWeb joint venture low Earth orbit (LEO) broadband satellite communications company has emerged from US Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and has satisfied relevant regulatory approvals to operate.

Formed in 2012, OneWeb develops what the UK government claims is “cutting-edge” satellite technology from its bases in the UK and the US. Emulating Elon Musk’s Starlink project, it aims to implement a constellation of 650 LEO satellites with a network of global gateway stations and a range of user terminals to provide an affordable, fast, high-bandwidth and low-latency communications service, connected to internet of things (IoT) devices, and a pathway for mass adoption of 5G services.

OneWeb is also the developer of a positioning system rivalling GPS and the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation systems. The UK was a developer of, and contributor to, the latter, but has now lost access to it after leaving the European Union (EU) in January 2020.

The UK government and Bharti Global have each committed $500m to OneWeb to take ownership of the financially troubled satellite technology provider and deliver the UK’s first sovereign space capability. Yet, despite setting out aggressive growth plans for the constellation, after failing to find private investment, OneWeb filed for bankruptcy in the US in March 2020.

That came as something of a surprise to many in the communications industry, as the UK government revealed that as part of a consortium including Indian comms provider Bharti Global, it was to provide $500m.

However, from its first announcement, the deal has seen many industry analysts question whether any commercial opportunities would be realised from OneWeb. And in late July, it was revealed that the decision to invest $500m, like Bharti Global, into the technically bankrupt company was taken against the advice of government advisers.

On 26 June, a ministerial direction regarding the purchase from Sam Beckett, acting permanent secretary and accounting officer at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, cast doubt on the business rationale for the deal. Then, in September 2020, the UK Parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee heard expert evidence from the world of satellite communications cast further doubt on the intrinsic value of the project for UK taxpayers.

But with bankruptcy now not an issue and with a regulatory green light, 17 December has been given as the target launch date for OneWeb’s return to flight, with a 36-satellite payload scheduled for launch by Arianespace from the Vostochny Cosmodrome. Because of investment decisions made by the company’s new shareholders, the joint venture facility with Airbus in Florida, US, was reactivated and the dual production lines brought back into service. All the satellites have already been shipped to the launch pad and are now undergoing preparation for flight.

Launches will continue throughout 2021 and 2022 and OneWeb insists it is on track to begin commercial connectivity services to the UK and the Arctic region in late 2021 and will expand to delivering global services in 2022.

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OneWeb will be headquartered in the UK, offering research and development (R&D) programmes and what it says will be manufacturing “opportunities”. It will also work with the UK commercial and academic space communities, along with other international specialists, in its R&D activities. At the helm of the operation will be CEO Neil Masterson, formerly co-chief operating officer at Thomson Reuters, succeeding Adrian Steckel, who continues as an adviser to the OneWeb board.

Masterson said: “I am looking forward to helping the OneWeb team deliver and commercialise their vision to provide internet access across the globe. OneWeb has a strong social purpose to improve the world’s access to information, which I share. It has great talent, a compelling commercial opportunity, and is supported by committed and knowledgeable owners and investors.

“Our December launch puts the UK firmly in the global space business, alongside acknowledged Indian telecoms experts, Bharti Global. OneWeb will be a model for responsible cooperation in space.”

Sunil Bharti Mittal, founder and chairman of Bharti Enterprises, added: “These are exciting times and the world now has an LEO alternative to work with. We look forward to partnering with those equally determined to enter this new Space Age.

“There is unmet demand around the globe for broadband connectivity and we intend to continue OneWeb’s social mission. We will use our joint-venture facility to drive down cost of service, opening new use cases for low-latency broadband provision.”

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