British satellite operator OneWeb, which is partly owned by the UK Government and various other investors, is reportedly seeking funding of around £3bn from a group of banks to help it cover the cost of massively expanding their ultrafast broadband network with second-generation (GEN2 ) satellites.
The company has so far managed to launch 428 of their small c.150kg Low Earth Orbit (LEO) based ultrafast (100Mbps+) and low-latency (sub-100ms) broadband satellites into space – orbiting at an altitude of around 1,200km – and their initial plan is to build a constellation of 648 (588 are needed for coverage – the rest are for redundancy), which is enough for a reasonable level of global coverage. This is due to be completed by the end of 2023.
However, the operator has long been planning for what comes after their first constellation, which will require fresh investment. OneWeb already has approval for a total of 2,000 satellites (although they want to go beyond that) and 1,280 of those will be the GEN2 model that could sit in a higher Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) of 8,500km, which are widely expected to have more broadband capacity and introduce enhanced navigation and positioning features.
The UK Government is quite keen on GPS-style navigation features, which is due to the post-Brexit loss of full access to the EU’s alternative Galileo system. The downside of MEOs is that their higher orbit would increase the network latency (server response times), albeit while enabling wider coverage. But this could be mitigated through clever use of both LEOs and MEOs (eg LEOs handling latency intensive apps, while MEOs do big data transfers). But we aren’t expecting to see the first non-trial MEO satellites until 2024-25.
In any case, such a plan would need a lot of extra funding. One potential source for that could be the proposed merger deal with existing investor and rival French operator Eutelsat (here), which has planned to set aside up to $5.3bn (£4.6bn) to complete OneWeb’s network and update its technology by 2030. But Some of Eutelsat’s shareholders still need convincing, so it’s not yet a done deal.
According to the Mail on Sunday, OneWeb is working with the Government’s export credit agency – UK Export Finance (UKEF) – and a similar agency in the USA, to raise the funds from a group of banks (eg France-based BPI). The UKEF can provide funds and guarantees to lenders for firms in strategic industries exporting from the UK. But the talks are at an early stage and may take up to a year to finalize.
The Eutelsat merger, which is subject to clearance by the usual meetings and regulatory authorities, is expected to close by the end of the first half of 2023. In case it wasn’t already obvious, that’s roughly in keeping with the timeline for OneWeb’s funding. negotiations with the banks. The merger would make such banks much more likely to approve new lending, but it could also give OneWeb a plan B in case the Eutelsat deal falls.
The report claims that OneWeb will set out their plans for a future network next month, which should finally clear up some of the speculation around what features and enhancements their GEN2 satellites will include.