British telecom OneWeb launches final satellites needed to bring broadband network to the Arctic

A growing British telecom just cleared a major hurdle toward making Alaska one of the first jurisdictions to eventually have access to its global satellite broadband network.

OneWeb launched 36 satellites from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Southeast Russia on July 1, bringing its total constellation to 254 low-Earth orbit, or LEO, satellites. While the large, London-based broadband startup is still less than halfway to its goal of eventually having 650 LEO satellites circling the globe, it now has enough deployed to cover regions above 50 degrees north and Alaska is at the top of the service list, according to company leaders.

The latest launch also keeps OneWeb on track to offer broadband capacity to Alaska, which will be sold through local retailers, before the year’s end.

The next months will be spent testing the LEO system before it goes live; the company’s broadband offering is expected to go global in 2022.

OneWeb representatives have said the company decided to roll out service in Alaska first because it is a part of the U.S. that in many respects resembles other countries that have large segments of population on the wrong side of the digital divide.

“This is a historic moment not only for OneWeb, but also for the 49th state,” CEO Neil Masterson said in a July 1 statement from the company. “Our company has been committed to putting Alaska and the Arctic first and we are glad to be one step closer to delivering service.”

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Eric Gillenwater, OneWeb’s vice president and business head said in an interview following the launch that the company’s broadband, which he described as a “fiber-like experience,” will give Alaskans and others in remote regions of the world more options to be better connected to the global economy.

He suggested seafood processors across Alaska could benefit from OneWeb’s low-latency broadband through real-time market and pricing information as one example of the many possibilities for helping industry in the state compete globally.

“In my opinion it’s all about the use cases that are getting enabled. There are satellites that are there today but they’re limited,” Gillenwater said.

The company is using a business-to-business model for its service, partnering with local “middle mile” providers that can use OneWeb’s service options to “make the whole economy more efficient,” he said.

In January 2020, OneWeb and longstanding Alaska telecom Microcom announced a deal for Microcom to sell OneWeb’s broadband capacity in the state. Under that arrangement, Microcom will offer retail sales of OneWeb’s broadband and its subsidiary, Pacific Dataport Inc, will handle wholesale transactions.

OneWeb’s LEO satellite network will augment what Pacific Dataport offers through its own Aurora broadband project, which aims to offer high-speed broadband via geosynchronous equatorial orbit, or GEO, satellites that are launched into an orbit thousands of miles above Earth and mirror the planet’s rotation.

“This is an exciting moment for Pacific Dataport, Microcom and OneWeb,” Pacific Dataport CEO and Microcom founder Chuck Schumann said of the July 1 launch. “We have been working for the last five years to see Alaska fully connected, and we are making substantial progress today through our partnership with OneWeb.”

In early June, OneWeb and Alaska Communications announced a similar distribution agreement.

Alaska Communications CEO Bill Bishop said at the time that OneWeb’s service will augment what the Anchorage-based internet provider can offer to its business and government customers.

OneWeb is utilizing partnerships like those it has with Pacific Dataport and Alaska Communications so everyone can focus on doing what they do best, according to Gillenwater.

“The reason we work with a B-to-B model is our local partners will always know the local market better than we will. And to dismiss that type of knowledge we feel is not effective,” he said.

“We’re part of the solution, not the solution.”

When the deal with Microcom was first announced roughly 18 months ago, OneWeb’s service was supposed to be live in Alaska by the end of 2020. However, OneWeb went into survival mode and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the early days of the pandemic after major investors in the company’s ambitious plans pulled out to shore up their own finances during a period of extreme uncertainty.

The British government and investment firm Bharti Global Ltd. teamed up to commit more than $1 billion to purchase and restart OneWeb last July; the events slowed, but didn’t stop, the company’s plans.

Gillenwater said OneWeb and its suppliers have subsequently managed to overcome COVID-19 work restrictions, material shortages and other supply chain disruptions to keep the company on its revised work schedule.

The monthly launches, which will continue for another year, are “becoming routine,” according to Gillenwater.

“That’s only possible if you have the right operational rigor and experience to do that,” he said.

Elwood Brehmer, Alaska Journal of Commerce

Elwood Brehmer is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. Email him: