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UK plan for OneWeb rival to Galileo in doubt

July 20, 2020

OneWeb, now in the process of being acquired by the British government and Indian telco giant Bharti Global, is going ahead with building satellites ahead of any decision to incorporate the UK’s plans for a rival global positioning system to rival Europe’s Galileo.

OneWeb’s bankruptcy court permitted the British and Indian joint-venture, (called ‘BidCo 100’) to pay $50.7 million into OneWeb in order to start re-building its initial constellation of some 648 satellites. OneWeb is authorised by the FCC to launch 720 craft out of a potential 1980 mega-constellation. OneWeb also has an application with the FCC to dramatically expand the number of satellites up to 48,000.

OneWeb is under an ITU timetable to get its satellites into orbit, not least because the ITU requires a large proportion of the fleet to be in orbit. OneWeb told the FCC that it would be providing service to Alaska by 2019 and rapidly rolling out its service to the rest of the US.

OneWeb is obliged by the ITU to launch 360 satellites by June 2023, and 720 by June 2026. Failure to keep to this timetable will risk the core OneWeb spectrum licences.  The FCC has endorsed this timetable.

Currently, OneWeb has just 74 satellites in orbit and the agreement with the incoming new owners UK/Bharti will honour most of the existing supply and launch contracts. Arianespace, for example, was under contract to launch 21 of its Soyuz rockets plus 3 launches of the new Ariane-6 rocket (itself delayed until later in 2021).  Each Soyuz would carry 34 satellites.

However, Arianespace also wants more cash. The old contract called for a total of $273.8 million for the launches. Arianespace now says that the original sum, of course, does not include interest owed on the old contract and is now seeking $286 million.

Add to these complications the inevitable bankruptcy process and it is highly unlikely that the current fleet of satellites under production will be further delayed in order for global positioning modifications to take place.

Prior to the bankruptcy OneWeb was producing satellites at around 2 per day. At 34 satellites per launch – and an obliged 300 craft still to be launched to meet the ITU rules – ten launches will see the task completed, but the demands are considerable. Waiting for the bankruptcy to be fully concluded, and making positioning modifications, makes this timetable much tighter.

Last week Airbus confirmed that it was committed to its joint-venture with OneWeb in Florida and would continue operating the joint venture’s Florida factory to turn out OneWeb’s satellites. The joint venture would also continue to seek other – non-OneWeb  – satellite orders.

There are also reports that the UK is not insisting on early adoption of its satellite positioning plans. The UK’s science, research and innovation minister Amanda Solloway said that she believes ‘new’ OneWeb would be profitable. “This investment is likely to make an economic return, with due diligence showing a strong commercial basis for investment,” she said. “The deal contributes to the government’s plan to join the first rank of space nations, and signals the government’s ambition for the UK to be a pioneer in the research, development, manufacturing, and exploitation of novel satellite technologies enabling enhanced broadband through the ownership of a fleet of low-Earth orbit satellites.”

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