Enlarge / Illustration of a OneWeb satellite.

Amid a bankruptcy and a pending sale, OneWeb has secured US approval to offer broadband service from 2,000 satellites.

OneWeb already had Federal Communications Commission approval for a 720-satellite constellation that was green-lit in June 2017. In an order released yesterday, the FCC gave OneWeb approval for another 1,280 satellites.

The first 720 satellites, of which OneWeb has launched 74, are for low Earth orbital altitudes of 1,200km. The additional 1,280 satellites were approved for medium Earth orbits of 8,500km. Both are much lower than the 35,000km geostationary orbits used by traditional satellite-broadband networks, which should result in lower latency and a better experience for Internet users.

OneWeb filed another application in May 2020 to launch a whopping 47,844 satellites at an altitude of 1,200km, but it’s not clear how long it would take to get FCC approval. OneWeb’s application for 1,280 satellites had been pending for more than three years before the FCC approved it this week. In that intervening time, the FCC adopted several rule changes related to satellite broadband, including an April 2019 order with new licensing rules for one of the spectrum bands that OneWeb eventually got approval to use.

OneWeb, which is based in London, also needs approval from UK regulators.

New spectrum, more capacity

The newly approved 1,280 satellites will use V-Band spectrum (37.5-43.5GHz, 47.2-50.2 GHz, and 50.4-51.4GHz). The FCC decision also gave OneWeb permission to use those frequencies with the previously approved 720 satellites. Originally, the 720 satellites were authorized to use only the Ku and Ka spectrum bands.

“We are pleased to hear the FCC granted our V-Band application. The V-band is critical for next generation satellite broadband services,” OneWeb told Ars in a statement today. “OneWeb looks forward to the future growth opportunities this approval will enable as we commercialize our spectrum and execute on our mission to bring low-latency connectivity to communities, governments, businesses, and people in the US and around the world.”

The FCC approval is contingent on OneWeb complying with power limits and spectrum-sharing rules, preventing interference with other networks, following procedures to minimize orbital debris, and other conditions. Under FCC rules, OneWeb has six years to launch 50 percent of licensed satellites and nine years to launch all of them.

The FCC said granting OneWeb’s application is in the public interest, and that the “additional capacity would enhance OneWeb’s ability to offer its proposed broadband services in the United States.”

Bankruptcy and sale

OneWeb filed for bankruptcy and laid off most of its staff in late March. On July 3, OneWeb agreed to sell the business to a consortium including the UK government and Bharti Global Limited for $1 billion.

The sale needs approval from regulators and the US Bankruptcy Court; OneWeb said it expects to complete the sale in Q4 2020. Bankruptcy proceedings are ongoing, and OneWeb told Ars that it “continues to target Q4 for exit from Chapter 11.”

OneWeb will have to compete against SpaceX, which has already launched over 600 satellites and started beta tests with Internet users. SpaceX has FCC permission to launch nearly 12,000 satellites and has applied for authorization to launch another 30,000.

Like OneWeb, SpaceX is using V-Band spectrum. SpaceX argued in filings that OneWeb should have to “detail how it intends to deploy in both the Ku/Ka and V-bands, whether it will have to replace an initial wave of Ku/Ka-band satellites with a new generation of V-band equipped satellites, and if so, how it intends to manage the significant coordination, collision avoidance, and disposal management challenges that such a rapid turn-over would require,” the FCC said in a summary of SpaceX’s concerns. The FCC rejected SpaceX’s request, explaining that “the information provided by OneWeb is sufficient and consistent with what has been received from other applicants” and that the extra information SpaceX requested “does not affect the interference analyses relied upon for this grant.”

In July, Amazon received FCC approval to launch 3,236 low Earth orbit satellites for its planned “Project Kuiper” broadband service.



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