OneWeb, BT sign agreement to explore rural satellite connectivity solutions

Low Earth orbit satellite constellation provider OneWeb announces agreement with BT to discover how satellite technology might support improved capacity, mobile resilience, backhaul and coverage in challenging geographic locations

In what is perhaps the most significant endorsement in the satellite-based global communications network provider’s controversial history, OneWeb has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with UK incumbent telco BT to explore the provision of improved digital communication services to some of the hardest-to-reach parts of the UK.

Reaching non-metropolitan areas of the UK with high-speed communications has been a political hot potato since 2019. As a result of the Covid-19 outbreak, the UK’s communications providers have striven to take fibre and other gigabit networks to places where they have traditionally not addressed, while in the mobile sphere the UK government has introduced its Shared Rural Network programme, a £1bn infrastructure project, designed to reduce partial not-spots in UK locations.

Low Earth orbit (LEO) provider OneWeb said its network has a unique capability to serve hard-to-reach communities and that its work with BT will focus on how satellite technology might support improved capacity, mobile resilience, backhaul and coverage, including fixed wireless access, as BT explores new options to enhance rural connectivity.

As part of the discussions, the companies will consider opportunities to deliver OneWeb’s connectivity services from LEO to businesses and communities around the UK, as well as identify collaboration opportunities to develop services beyond UK’s shores for BT’s global customers.

Formed in 2012, OneWeb develops “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 forming a pathway for mass adoption of 5G services.

However, the company’s evolution was one of struggle, and it filed for bankruptcy in the US in March 2020 after failing to find private investment. It was rescued by a $500m investment from both the UK government and Bharti Global, and returned to business in December 2020 with a 36-satellite payload.

The company then embarked on a programme of launches, with commercial connectivity services to the UK and the Arctic region planned for late 2021 and expansion to global services in 2022.

As it executes the deployment of its network, OneWeb said it is continuing to see increasing demand from customers. The company has announced recent distribution partner signings across multiple industries and territories above the 50th Parallel, with communication companies including the AST Group, PDI and ACS, among others. It regards the BT MoU as a further demonstration of its execution momentum, and in the confidence customers have in its services and offering.

“This partnership is a huge sign of progress in the resilience and advancement of the overall telecom infrastructure in the UK,” said OneWeb’s chief executive officer Neil Masterson. “OneWeb’s network will be a vital means for bridging the last digital divides across the network, and we are excited to be part of the solution with BT to expand the nation’s digital infrastructure.”

BT chief executive Philip Jansen added: “Our ambitious full-fibre and mobile commitments have put BT at the forefront of efforts to expand digital connectivity across the UK. It is clear that greater partnership is needed, both with government and within industry, to ensure connectivity can reach every last corner of the country. Our agreement with OneWeb is an important step to understanding how that goal could be achieved in the future.”

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