After the British revival of OneWeb, what next for sat comms in the Arctic?

By Max Daniels
The collapse of OneWeb in March was just the latest in a string of failures in the satellite sector. The company, hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, promised universal high-speed broadband and, eventually, 5G for remote areas, including in the Arctic. With the British Government stepping in, Max Daniels considers what is next for the company, as well as the major players hoping to bring fast broadband to the far North.

Max Daniels


Average broadband speeds

Average U.S. broadband download speeds, by state (2016). Using data from the FCC/Broadband Now.

The physics: the importance of LEO

Polar connectivity is difficult. The local geography is marked by mountainous regions or the large rolling waves of the Southern Ocean. Large landmasses lead to a population spread thin: with the Northwest Territories’ population density officially registered as 0.0 people per square kilometre, compared to six in Quebec.[1]

This makes the economics of connection difficult. Populous, developed areas tend to have fixed-line systems for their broadband (either cable or fibre-optic), but this is expensive to build or maintain in Arctic terrain. Satellites traditionally transmit from geostationary (GEO) orbit (remaining 36,000km above a fixed position on the Earth’s surface), but this fails to reach higher, polar latitudes. As the UK Satellite Applications Catapult warned, “For the Polar Regions… investing in any kind of exclusive telecom services – terrestrial or satellite – is hard to justify because of the extremely low population densities at play.”[2]

The result is poor connections, by comparison. Alaska ranks last of US states for broadband access and download speeds.[3] New infrastructure is clearly required, and low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites offer one solution.

LEO works by transmitting data from a ground receiver up to satellites orbiting at altitudes of up to 1,000km that pass above a specific point on the Earth’s surface about every 90 minutes. Having a network of such satellites should mean the user is never out of range, when standing at that point. A comprehensive network, or constellation, of these devices could cover the entirety of the Earth’s surface – including the Arctic. As LEO is closer to the Earth’s surface than GEO, it also provides higher bandwidth and lower latency.

The LEO market and the Arctic

Hence, LEO’s appeal to less populated regions including the Arctic. The demand would come from a range of markets, according to the Catapult report: video (including television), with 22.9% predicted of total revenues by 2024; commercial mobility (including for shipping), at 22.2%; broadband and VSAT, at 18.8%; and oil and gas, at 16.5%. The other segments are telephony (7.3%); Government/military (6.7%); mining (3.4%); utilities (1.3%); backhaul (0.7%); and machine-to-machine and Internet of Things (0.1%).

LEO is not the only option. An Arctic Economic Council report argued there is no single solution to the provision of broadband in the region,[4] with its social and geographical variety requiring a range of approaches. A 957km fibre-optic cable to the city of Norilsk is planned by the privately-owned Russian mining company Nornickel, which shows that investment is not purely determined by profit (rather, it will improve the firm’s IT infrastructure as a benefit for employees).

LEO enterprises have promised much, but so far have spectacularly failed. We turn to OneWeb as a well-developed system to see what went wrong, and what the future holds for Arctic satellite communications.

LEO satellite constellation

OneWeb demonstration of its LEO satellite constellation, Mobile 360 Eurasia (October 2019)

The demise of OneWeb

OneWeb is a UK-based satellite operator. It sought to build a LEO constellation providing high-speed and low-latency communications across the globe, with 74 out of a planned 648 satellites launched prior to its collapse. The Arctic was a priority, with speeds promised of up to 375 Gbps.

The firm filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the U.S. on 27 March 2020. It cited its inability to raise $2 billion in funding in the context of disruption to financial markets resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Japanese conglomerate and key investor SoftBank effectively sounded its death-knell just days after its final batch of 34 satellites had been launched.

The economics of satellite-broadband systems are a notorious quagmire. Elon Musk, founder of rival SpaceX, noted at the Satellite 2020 Conference, that there has never been a LEO operation that did not end in bankruptcy.[5]

As Musk suggests, the industry has proved risky. OneWeb was spending around $100 million every month and would likely have needed above $7.5 billion to deploy its entire constellation – far above initial estimates of $1.5 billion. Other failures include Iridium (1999), ICO Global Communications (1999),[6] Orbcomm (2000),[7] Globalstar (2002),[8] and ICO’s subsidiary DBSD North America (2009),[9] to name a few. Just a month later, Intelsat also filed (in part) for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, again citing the economic impacts of the pandemic.[10]

The outlook for LEO constellations appears bleak, but the firm has now been salvaged.

The U.S. Bankruptcy Court of the Southern District of New York auctioned off OneWeb’s assets, and it was confirmed on 3 July 2020 that the UK Government had taken a $500 million stake in the company in partnership with Bharti Global, subject to regulatory sign-off.[11] The Financial Times reports this is for a 45% stake in the firm, with decision-making powers on which organisations can use its network or on any future sales.[12]

What lies behind the British decision? And what does this mean for much-needed communications infrastructure across the Arctic?

Enter: The UK Government

The British Government has been looking for a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) ever since the UK was kicked out of the EU’s Galileo in 2018. It considered developing its own, but soon realised this would cost between £3 to £5 billion[13] (not that this posed a barrier to China, which recently completed its third-generation Beidou navigation system.)[14]

The company has significant operations in Florida but offered to relocate these to its London headquarters.[15] The Satellite Applications Catapult also advised how navigation tools could be installed on its satellites in a unique and exportable manner.[16] A bankrupt OneWeb thus presented a quick opportunity to build a functioning GNSS for the UK.

Perhaps more significant is that it adds resilience to the communications security of the U.S. and its allies. The firm’s expansive LEO constellation is harder to disable than the GEO satellites used in GPS and would not duplicate the American system.

The move has not been without its critics, with analysts noting that LEO remains unproven technology.[17] Views differ even among governments, with the American FCC expressing, “serious doubts that any low earth orbit networks will be able to meet the… requirements” for federal subsidies.[18] In the UK, it was revealed that a Ministerial Direction from the Civil Service was overridden,[19] while the Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee said that, “we don’t understand the basis on which this has been purchased in the first place.”[20]

Whatever the merits, it represents greater British high-level engagement with space. The National Space Council is now a sitting Cabinet committee, chaired by the Chancellor. The Prime Minister referred to the British satellite sector in his Downing Street speech on the post-pandemic recovery.[21]

There is also a glimmer of a future for more northerly latitudes, including in Britain. OneWeb issued a statement saying that it, “remains ready to continue building its communications system…starting with the Arctic.”[22] Unrelated but still important was the approval in June of the Highlands & Islands Enterprise for the UK’s first vertical spaceport in Sutherland, northern Scotland.[23] 

Other Arctic operators

There are several players in the business aside from OneWeb. Jeff Foust, editor of The Space Review, notes satellite-market consultants Northern Sky Research follow around 125 active companies.[24]

The main groups seeking to operate in the Arctic are listed below, although by its nature a comprehensive LEO network would allow any operator to provide services at high latitudes. There is more focus on some firms than others, given their respective progress: relatively little is known about Amazon’s Project Kuiper, for example, vying to compete with SpaceX or OneWeb, although it did secure FCC authorisation for over 3,200 satellites.[25] Three examples of public and military polar satellites are also discussed, with attention on Norwegian and U.S. programmes.

The private sector

SpaceX Falcon-9

IridiumNEXT payload, on board SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket – also used to launch Starlink satellites, eoPortal/SpaceX (2017)

SpaceX Starlink

SpaceX is the most well-known of the main players in space-related industries. It has achieved global recognition for eye-catching activities including the world’s first crewed commercial launch to the International Space Station.

The firm’s LEO constellation Starlink has promised high-speed internet access ‘across the globe’, including in remote areas. In similar language and timescales to OneWeb, SpaceX is aiming for services to northern Canada and the U.S. by the end of this year, expanding to ‘near-global’ coverage in 2021.[26] Starlink has 538 satellites in orbit at the time of writing out of a planned 12,000 and is progressing with two launches per month.

The company has shone a light on the importance of the Arctic to any LEO business plan. Half of the first batch of 4,425 satellites will orbit at altitudes of between 1,110km and 1,325km; the other half at 550km.[27] The company received approval from the FCC to launch the second batch of 7,518 satellites at altitudes of between 335km and 346km.[28] SpaceX has now applied to the FCC to reduce the altitude of the remaining portion of the original batch, also to 550km.[29] Its justification included reducing the prevalence of debris at LEO, but also that, “this modification will improve service to customers—including Federal users—in otherwise impossible to reach polar areas.”

Inmarsat and Global Xpress

The London-based satellite operator Inmarsat is working with the Norwegian government to launch two satellites serving the Arctic. The GX-10A and GX-10B will be built by Northrop Grumman and launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in late 2022 as part of Inmarsat’s Global Xpress network. They will be placed in a highly-elliptical orbit (HEO), allowing persistent coverage at high latitudes (from 65 degrees North) for both civilian and military customers from what will be the world’s first mobile-broadband service dedicated to the Arctic.[30]

Great emphasis has been placed on the strategic importance of these services. The satellites will be operated by Space Norway, a firm wholly owned by the Norwegian government, as part of its Arctic Satellite Broadband Mission of Space Norway.[31] The programme will be managed with Kongsberg Satellite Services from a ground station in Tromsø, using systems installed by GMV,[32] and will be used by the Norwegian military and U.S. Airforce.[33]

Kepler

Kepler Communications, a Toronto-based satellite manufacturer and services firm, began development of its PolarConnect network to provide high-bandwidth coverage to the polar regions. The company has two nano-satellites in orbit over the Arctic, launching KIPP in January 2018 and CASE in December that year. These have demonstrated potential, providing download and upload speeds of 38Mbps and 120Mbps respectively for the Polarstern ship as part of the MOSAiC expedition.[34] The company plans to have at least 10 further satellites in orbit by the end of 2020, 50 in orbit by the end of 2021, and all 140 satellites before 2023.[35]

Iridium

Iridium has launched 75 satellites to 780km since it began upgrading to the Iridium NEXT constellation in 2017. The Virginia-based operator’s interconnected satellites received authorisation this year for use in the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) to help ships in distress – including in Arctic waters. Previously, this was under an Inmarsat monopoly that did not cover the polar regions.[36] The company is using this upgraded network to provide its L-band Certus 700 network service to shipowners along the Northern Sea Route, with promises bandwidth of up to 700kbps.[37]

The public sector and military

EUMETSAT

The European satellite agency EUMETSAT gathers data related to weather, climate, and the environment.[38] The organisation operates nine satellites for its 30 member states: three over Africa, Europe, and the Indian Ocean; three 850km above the poles in LEO; and three for marine observations, providing an enormous quantity of free-to-access data. The Norwegian shipping company NAVTOR uses information on sea-ice and wind directions to guide 3,000 ships globally, promoting efficient fuel usage.[39]

Norway and AISSat

Shipping in Norwegian waters is tracked by two nanosatellites orbiting in LEO: the AISSat-1 and AISSat-2 (Automatic Identification System Satellites).[40] These offer location-based data, reducing the risk of collisions. Under International Maritime Organization rules, AIS devices have been compulsory since 2004 on all passenger vessels, ships above 300 tonnes on international voyages, and cargo ships above 500 tonnes on any voyage.

The United States Military

The U.S. Military has been seeking ways to improve its communications infrastructure in the far North. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has developed ‘Blackjack’, a project to make greater use of cost-effective LEO satellites for secure military communications.[41] The first two test satellites are scheduled for launch in 2021, followed by a further 18 in 2022. Contractors with which DARPA is working include Airbus, Blue Canyon Technologies and Telesat.

The need is particularly pressing in the Arctic. While the U.S. Space Force currently operates two secure, anti-jamming Enhanced Polar System satellites, its options are limited in a region viewed as a “critical terrestrial gap”.[42] USNORTHCOM Commander General Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy referred to Arctic communications as his ‘number one’ unfunded priority.[43] Lt. Gen. David Thompson, Vice Commander of the U.S. Space Force, also spoke of OneWeb’s potential in the Arctic,[44] not least because of reported interest among strategic rivals (i.e. Chinese-backed firms) in the company’s assets.[45]


[1] statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/as-sa/fogs-spg/Facts-pr-eng.cfm?Lang=Eng&GK=PR&GC=24&TOPIC=1
[2] sa.catapult.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/25-Polar-Communications-.pdf
[3] broadbandnow.com/Alaska
[4] arcticeconomiccouncil.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/AEC-Report_Final-LR.pdf
[5] youtube.com/watch?v=HPV8Xp3pEpI
[6] nytimes.com/1999/08/28/business/two-weeks-later-ico-follows-iridium-into-bankruptcy-court.html
[7] satellitetoday.com/uncategorized/2000/09/21/satellite-industry-faces-next-leo-bankruptcy/
[8] wired.com/2001/11/globalstar-broke-but-not-out/
[9] tvtechnology.com/news/ico-global-communications-subsidiary-files-for-bankruptcy
[10] intelsat.com/news/press-release/intelsat-undertakes-financial-restructuring-to-pave-the-way-for-future-innovation-and-growth/
[11] gov.uk/government/news/uk-government-to-acquire-cutting-edge-satellite-network
[12] ft.com/content/01e4d379-ac2d-4ca3-9724-b0a982d1fa4f
[13] spacewatch.global/2020/05/pressure-grows-to-scrap-proposed-uk-global-navigation-satellite-system/
[14] xinhuanet.com/english/2020-06/23/c_139161671.htm
[15] ft.com/content/50c3b6dc-2d2f-4bb4-aa9b-b24493315140
[16] sa.catapult.org.uk/news/oneweb-the-opportunity-for-the-uk/
[17] twitter.com/MarekZiebart/status/1276614850333073413?s=20
[18] docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/FCC-20-77A1.pdf
[19] computerweekly.com/news/252486555/UK-government-ignored-civil-service-warning-of-no-benefit-in-acquisition-of-OneWeb
[20] bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000lwqz/newsnight-18082020
[21] gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-economy-speech-30-june-2020
[22] oneweb.world/media-center/oneweb-announces-hmg-and-bharti-global-limited-consortium-as-winning-bidders-in-court-supervised-sale-process
[23] hie.co.uk/latest-news/2020/june/26/sutherland-satellite-launch-site-plans-win-council-approval/
[24] thespacereview.com/article/3892/1
[25] docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/FCC-20-102A1.pdf
[26] starlink.com/
[27] arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2019/04/spacex-changes-broadband-satellite-plan-to-limit-debris-and-lower-latency/
[28] arstechnica.com/information-technology/2018/11/spacex-gets-fcc-approval-for-7500-more-broadband-satellites
[29] fcc.report/IBFS/SAT-MOD-20200417-00037/2274315.pdf
[30] inmarsat.com/about-us/our-technology/our-satellites/
[31] spacenorway.no/home/
[32] gmv.com/en/Company/Communication/PressReleases/2020/NP_002_NorthropGrumman.html
[33] inmarsatgov.com/arctic-region-payloads-inmarsats-seamless-global-connectivity/
[34] ispreview.co.uk/index.php/2019/11/keplers-nano-leo-satellite-delivers-ultrafast-broadband-to-arctic.html
[35] spectrum.ieee.org/aerospace/satellites/building-an-orbiting-internet-just-for-satellites
[36] nasaspaceflight.com/2020/01/iridium-milestone-maritime-safety-breaks-monopoly/
[37] thedigitalship.com/component/k2/item/6476-northern-sea-route-given-connectivity-boost
[38] eumetsat.int/website/home/AboutUs/index.html
[39] ship-technology.com/features/mapping-oceans-earths-satellites-power-shipping/
[40] earth.esa.int/web/eoportal/satellite-missions/a/aissat-1
[41] spacenews.com/darpas-big-bet-on-blackjack/
[42] spacewatch.global/2020/06/spacewatchgl-opinion-resurrecting-oneweb-what-impact-for-the-global-space-industry/
[43] armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/OShaughnessy_02-13-20.pdf
[44] defensenews.com/smr/2020/05/12/a-bankrupt-oneweb-could-get-some-help-from-the-defense-department/
[45] advanced-television.com/2020/05/07/bidders-emerge-for-oneweb-assets/

Max Daniels serves as a Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. Max graduated with a BA in Human Geography from Durham University. His interests lay in a diverse range of subjects, including political and urban geographies with a cross-disciplinary focus on Arctic governance, while his dissertation analysed the regulatory framework of Antarctic tourism. Following experience in the travel industry, he completed his MA in Geopolitics, Territory and Security at King’s College London. He has pursued his studies in international spaces and the poles, with projects focusing on the legal aspects of territorial and border disputes in the Arctic, the Antarctic’s environmental geopolitics, and the geopolitics of outer space. He has most recently worked as a staffer for a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons.
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