OneWeb, we hardly knew you…

Since my last post, OneWeb launched 36 new low Earth orbit (LEO) communications satellites (in an effort to rival Starlink, but with a much less ambitious network), then as the COVID-19 lockdown commenced in Europe and many other countries worldwide, abruptly declared bankruptcy. What a bizarre turn of events.

Oneweb, was to be made up of just under 650 satellites at approximately 1,200km altitude, on polar orbits. For a summary of their plans, check out the most recent launch video below:

Now, 650 is a MUCH smaller network than Starlink’s huge LEO network of 21,000 satellites and some of the results showed – greater latency than Starlink and lower throughput – broadband speeds in excess of 400 Mbps and latency of 32 ms, but still a huge improvement on a traditional geostationary communications satellite. Back on 21Mar20, not quite three weeks ago as I write this post, OneWeb launched their third batch of 36 satellites from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan giving them a total of 74 birds in the sky. I love a rocket launch, so here it is a t-10s for your enjoyment.

So, with a reasonable start to their network deployment, a 2021 launch of their service is looking good… until just six days layer, OneWeb filed for US Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. I’m no accountant and I don’t pretend to understand US bankruptcy law, but this is not like bankruptcy in Australia – where creditors would move in and sell of the assets to try and recoup some of their money, no in the USA, the company keeps operating and reorganises it’s finances to ease the burden on its creditors. In this case however, this statement from OneWeb states that they’re trying to reorganise their finances with a view to continue operations (which at this point in the company’s life, means network deployment). These steps have resulted from failed finance negotiations that were progressing, but fell in a hole when the markets tanked as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

OneWeb’s Satellite Network as of April, 2020 (120x speed)

OneWeb have about half of their planned 44 base stations built and another 580 satellites to get into orbit, lets hope that they can get their finances in order to finish out their build because until they do, all they have is a lot of liability.

A quick comparison between OneWeb and Starlink reveals the obvious advantage that Starlink have right now:

Starlink’s Satellite Network as of April 2020 (50x speed)

This is all very interesting and all, but what’s this got to do with the Telecommunications industry?

Well, as these players move along with their deployments, it’s going to be harder and harder for Telcos as we know them now to compete against these new companies. If OneWeb can get past these financial problems – and that’s a whole other discussion given the state of the markets as a result of COVID-19 – we could see national CSPs that are focussed on (particularly) IP traffic (lets face it, aren’t they all!) fall to these new competitors.

It all depends on companies like OneWeb and Starlink ability survive this current financial crisis, their price plans and if they can live up to their promised performance. I can’t predict the future, so you and I will need to wait and see…

Starlink – a global CSP disruptor

As SpaceX reach 180 starlink satellites in low Earth orbit; on the road to 12,000 once the network is complete, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Starlink is set to become a global disruptor in the telecommunications industry. Once complete, SpaceX’s network will be nearly global (except for polar regions) and will be ubiquitous. The diagram below illustrates the coverage area – basically 100% coverage of most of the populated regions of the Earth :

Starlink network coverage (approximate)

The big benefit that the Starlink satellite constellation over a traditional communications satellite sitting in a geostationary orbit is the time it takes for the signal to get from a point on Earth to another Point on Earth. The Starlink constellation at an altitude of 550km is much closer to us than a geostationary communications satellite at (approx) 35,700km. The Starlink constellation will transmit information between Starlink satellites before downlinking to the destination. In an example of a connection between Australia and the Middle East, the diagram below shows the Starlink connection in White, a Fibre (mainly undersea) connection in Red and the geostationary communications satellite connection in yellow. This is approximately to scale.

A scale comparison of Starlink vs Geostationary Satellite and Fibre connections (Melbourne to the Middle East)

The white Starlink connection can pretty closely approximate a great circle path and thus is a shorter path than the red fibre connection (which must travel where the undersea cables have been laid). Yes, there are potentially more hops in a Starlink connection than a traditional satellite connection, but the distances involved are MUCH shorter. The other issue with traditional geostationary satellite connections is because of the distances involved, the signal strength is relatively very weak and because of that, these signals suffer from higher data loss, which means that these comms don’t just use standard TCP/IP, rather they use protocols that have much greater error correction and parity capabilities – this has the cumulative effect of slowing down the connection. Combine this slow connection speed and high latency (because of the distances involved), traditional satellite carriers have a big challenge ahead of them when compared to Starlink which promises to deliver much greater speeds at much lower latency – competitive with fibre for all but the largest bandwidth consumers.

To give you an idea of the comparison between Starlink and Geostationary satellite communications, I built a quick animation – remember this is only half of the connection (one way only) ; a real connection would be double the times as the response needs to back to the initiator.

A visualisation of the speed difference between Starlink and traditional geostationary satellite communications

What about for connections between two systems in the same country, as opposed to international connections? Even local in-country CSPs face significant competition from Starlink.

If we look at the Telstra coverage map for Australia+, easily the largest Telco in Australia with the best coverage, and yet we have lots of space that has no coverage at all. Contrast that with a 100% coverage that Starlink would provide with lower latency and much higher throughput… what do you think ? Will Telstra or any other CSP in the world face a challenge from Starlink? I think so…

January 2020 Telstra Mobile Coverage Map

+ Yes, I know Australia has a very large area and has a relatively small population, so the problem is not as big in other countries, but just imagine 100% coverage 100% of the time and in any country you ever visit…