2018 Preview: Satellite industry 2.0 tees up bevy of satellites in name of broadband for all

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our 2018 Preview feature, which looks at the big topics facing the industry next year. Click here for the 2018 preview in wireless, click here for the 2018 preview in cable and video, and click here for the 2018 preview in the wireline industry.

One good indication the satellite industry is undergoing a major transformation: In a nail-biting race, Greg Wyler, the entrepreneur behind the satellite internet company OneWeb, earned the title of “Most Powerful Person in Telecom” in FierceWireless’ battle of the CEOs, edging past T-Mobile CEO John Legere and beating other industry heavyweights like Apple’s Tim Cook and Verizon’s Lowell McAdam. It was a title that came after Wyler was deemed the industry’s top rising star for 2017.

One could argue it’s a simple popularity contest, but a strong theme in Wyler’s rise to the top is the fact that he wants to connect the 4 billion unconnected or underconnected people in the world. It’s a very top-of-Twitter kind of message: serving the remote and underserved regions of the world and making sure as many people as possible get access to decent, speedy internet service. 

OneWeb is shooting for 2021 to achieve 2.5 gigabits per second direct to a rural home. The company received permission from the FCC in June to deploy a global network of 720 low-Earth orbit satellites using the Ka (20/30 GHz) and Ku (11/14 GHz) frequency bands. Earlier this year, the company broke new ground for a satellite manufacturing facility in Exploration Park, Florida, which will be capable of producing 15 satellites per week.

OneWeb is the first of several entities that filed for FCC authority to deploy a large constellation of non-geostationary-satellite orbit (NGSO) fixed satellite system satellites. According to the Satellite Industry Association, the FCC received more than 15 NGSO applications in three processing rounds for system constellations in the Ku and Ka bands and V band. SpaceX and Boeing are among those proposing new, huge constellations.

Asked about the major factors affecting investment in next-generation satellite technology during a Senate committee hearing, several leading satellite players said access to spectrum is the No. 1 issue. The spectrum issue is notable given the intense competition for spectrum among the terrestrial wireless and satellite industries.

Wyler still has to prove it can be done. OneWeb has a lot of eyes watching it; shareholders include Qualcomm, Hughes, Intelsat, Coca-Cola, Airbus Group, the Virgin Group and SoftBank Group. But OneWeb’s rockets are in place and the first rocket launch is expected in May of 2018. Expectations call for the company to start offering service in Alaska in 2019; coverage will be extended to reach more people by the end of 2020, giving far-flung areas of the state access to broadband.

Satellite industry proponents say that now, unlike decades ago when Teledesic and the earlier iteration of Iridium failed to make successful businesses, technology advancements are enabling satellite service to be offered more affordably and efficiently. Keep an eye on the space in 2018 as OneWeb starts to make a name for itself and other projects get the OK or the boot.