The collective vision of SpaceX and OneWeb is exciting: very low latency communications and internet access made available in every global location: including isolated rural spots, ships in the middle of oceans and the air space.
They plan to achieve this via operating vast fleets of little satellites circling the earth in low-orbit trajectories. Low orbit satellites circle the earth at roughly 350-400km from the earth’s surface.
Global internet connectivity: OneWeb
OneWeb’s satellites are built by OneWeb Satellites, which is a joint venture between OneWeb and Airbus Defence and Space.
OneWeb intends to launch more than 30 satellites per rocket, and it has plans to grow its constellation to more than 650 satellites via monthly launches. OneWeb is staking a claim that it will be able to offer full global commercial coverage by 2021.
Global internet connectivity: SpaceX
Meanwhile, SpaceX has been reticent to share much detail about the progress of its low-orbit satellite fleet. It is known that the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has granted permission to the company to launch and operate a network of several thousands of low Earth orbit communication satellites.
Thanks to the latest communications technologies and laser beams running between satellites, it is expected that financial traders might be able to benefit from ultra-low latency communications faster than land-based optical fibre networks because apparently, the signals can travel through space faster than on cables. But SpaceX has not been very clear on ongoing launches and it is therefore not clear when it may offer global connectivity.
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The challenges ahead
Both companies face many challenges, the most serious of which is the incredible cost of putting these birds up into orbit. It is also thought that with many thousands in orbit, space is increasingly crowded with both satellite and debris and junk. The satellites constellations will need constant upgrades and maintenance, and once past their sell-by date, what happens to them then?
OneWeb is communicating more details and has a programme afoot to continue steadily launching its satellites. It also claims its first two customers. This transparency gives the industry a sense that the company has a clear purpose and the means to execute. It is also eager to present an image of doing social good with a campaign called #EmpowerHumanity. As a part of this campaign, OneWeb will connect a school each in Alaska, Ecuador, Honduras, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, and Rwanda, and conduct a series of visits to these schools and push details of the schools and the program through social media channels.