UK Wins Bid for OneWeb

Successful offer could mean UK-backed broadband everywhere

On 3 July, the UK government successfully bid for satellite operator OneWeb, taking Britain a step closer to relaunching its satellite ambitions post-Brexit. A consortium involving the UK government and Indian telecom operator Bharti Airtel was the highest bidder in an auction for the bankrupt company. On 10 July, the sale was approved by a US bankruptcy court — a crucial decision that means OneWeb can continue working on a broadband network built in space.

Established in 2012 and headquartered in London, OneWeb has been building a low-Earth orbit satellite constellation to provide broadband Internet services. The company’s spacecraft are made in Florida in a partnership with European aerospace giant Airbus. OneWeb had launched 74 satellites in an initial network of 648 when it announced bankruptcy proceedings in March 2020. It had raised about $3.3 billion in debt and equity financing from shareholders including Airbus, Qualcomm and SoftBank before filing for bankruptcy, blaming the Covid-19 health crisis for its inability to raise additional funds.

The UK government sees satellites as a way to meet commitments to the roll-out of fast broadband across the country. It plans to use the constellation for positioning, navigation and timing services in order to replace the EU’s satnav resource Galileo, which the UK lost access to in January 2020 as a result of Brexit. The UK lacks its own native launch capabilities, but is working toward developing a number of spaceports to be able to launch small satellites from UK soil. The new initiative will act as a domestic resource to help maintain and extend in-space assets like OneWeb’s constellation.

According to chief executive of the UK Space Agency, Graham Turnock, “The government has increased ambitions for space and we are working to strengthen our national capabilities, create high-skilled jobs and drive further growth in the UK space sector”.

OneWeb is one of several companies working on an Internet-from-space project, using a combination of low-altitude satellites to beam Internet connectivity to terminals on Earth. Other deep-pocketed rivals like Elon Musk’s SpaceX satellite broadband initiative, called Starlink, is in the process of sending 12,000 satellites into orbit over the next few years (see Space Patrol). At the end of 2019 Amazon subsidiary Kuiper Systems applied to the US Federal Communications Commission for permission to launch a constellation of 3,236 broadband satellites (see The Internet Space Race Renaissance). Other players such as Inmarsat, Intelsat and Eutelsat are also in the broadband race. The UK is competing head-on with some sizeable and pretty influential organizations.

However, turning around the fortunes of OneWeb will be a daunting task requiring continued investment and a long-term outlook. With tough economic conditions and uncertain payback, the move could be called into question as the UK slips into a likely recession.