SpaceX plans to begin offering broadband internet service — from space.
In order to do that, SpaceX says it needs to get at least 800 Starlink internet satellites (out of a planned 12,000) into orbit. And with last week’s successful launch of its “Starlink-4” rocket carrying 60 satellites, SpaceX is already at least 25% of the way to its goal.
Result: SpaceX is on track to begin delivering broadband satellite internet before the end of 2020.
It won’t be alone.
Hello, SpaceX! Meet OneWeb
SpaceX’s plan to upset the several regional internet service provider monopolies dominated by Comcast, Charter, AT&T, and their ilk is revolutionary — but it’s not unique. Fact is, at the same time SpaceX is plotting to dominate space-based internet service, rival companies Amazon.com and OneWeb are plotting the very same thing.
Amazon’s Project Kuiper, for example, intends to orbit some 3,236 satellites above Earth, broadcasting internet service around the globe. Arlington, Virginia-based OneWeb plans something similar, with a constellation numbering “more than 650 satellites” (says OneWeb).
But while Amazon’s project is currently still entirely a paper project, OneWeb appears to be the company closest to actually challenging SpaceX in space.
On Feb. 6, OneWeb sent 34 satellites blasting into orbit aboard an Ariane Soyuz rocket. Joining six other OneWeb sattelites already in orbit, this second OneWeb launch brings the satellite communications company’s constellation size to 40 sats (about 75% fewer than SpaceX has got).
And now it’s a race
But OneWeb is racing to pick up the pace. Over the remainder of this year, the company plans to launch 10 more times.
Assuming I’m doing my math right, that adds up to a total of 382 OneWeb sats in orbit by the end of this year, enough to begin offering “customer demos” in 2020.
And even then, OneWeb won’t be finished. In 2021, the company plans to wrap up its deployment with 10 more launches.
Assuming the payloads hold steady at 34 sats each, that should add a further 340 satellites to the constellation next year — 722 in all. (OneWeb says it’s targeting “approximately 650 satellites” for its initial deployment, so presumably, some of the 722 will be spares).
In any case, at that point, the company is promising it will offer “full global commercial coverage” with broadband satellite internet. Additional launches — and additional satellites supporting additional bandwidth — are anticipated beginning in 2023, with Arianespace providing Ariane “62” and “64” rockets for the missions, and each launch accommodating payloads of 36 and 78 satellites, respectively.
What it means for investors
The production of 700-odd new satellites will mean more than just the ability for OneWeb to compete with SpaceX in providing satellite internet service. It will mean revenues for “Airbus OneWeb Satellites,” OneWeb’s “prime contractor” for production. Admittedly, OneWeb itself remains privately held. But it’s part-owned by Softbank (OTC:SFTBY), offering investors one way to share in any profits from this venture — by investing in Softbank.
Also, as the name suggests (and as S&P Global Market Intelligence confirms) Airbus OneWeb Satellites is part-owned by Airbus (OTC:EADSY). As a result, Airbus gets to profit from this project twice — first through producing the satellites, and then through having its subsidiary Arianespace launch them — giving investors perhaps an even better way to profit from this venture (and without the risk of having to compete with SpaceX to do it).
What it means for you — and your access to satellite internet broadband
At this point you may be wondering, though — this all sounds great for OneWeb, Airbus, Softbank, etc., but what does it mean for me? If you’re considering dumping Comcast internet service, for example, in favor of SpaceX internet, or OneWeb, or even Amazon (if it ever launches a satellite to provide internet service), which should you choose?
Well, the short answer is SpaceX, which is planning on selling internet service directly to customers using ground stations to receive it. In contrast, OneWeb plans to partner and sell its internet service through “partners around the world” (which means that even if OneWeb provides the service, you might still have to buy it from Comcast!)
And here’s another factor to consider. You’ve probably noticed that SpaceX’s plan, launching 12,000 satellites over a period of some years, is a whole lot bigger than OneWeb’s, with 650, or even 722 satellites going into orbit over the next couple of years. Yet despite vastly different constellation sizes, both companies are promising “global internet coverage.”
How is that possible?
The answer: SpaceX is targeting an operational orbit just 550 kilometers over Earth, while OneWeb’s satellites will orbit at 1,200 kilometers. Working from a higher orbit, each OneWeb satellite will be able to blanket much more of Earth’s surface with internet coverage — a more efficient layout.
On the other hand, more than twice as distant from Earth’s surface, each OneWeb satellite should experience greater latency — the time it takes for signals to pass from Earth to satellite and back again.
SpaceX’s network, therefore, so much larger in size and taking so much longer to build out, should in theory offer better, faster internet service. While it’s hard to say right now which constellation will offer internet users the better deal in terms of price (since we don’t know the price of either service), initial indications suggest that SpaceX’s service may be the more attractive one for consumers.