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OneWeb to resume satellite launches after billion-pound takeover

(Image credit: Shutterstock / Andrey Armyagov)

British-based satellite broadband firm OneWeb says it plans to resume satellite launches after a successful £1 billion takeover by the UK government and Indian telco Bharti Airtel.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has invested £400 million in OneWeb which, despite most of its management and manufacturing being American, is headquartered in London and regulated by Ofcom.

OneWeb had a stated ambition of providing connectivity to parts of Earth where it is impossible or uneconomical to use traditional technologies such as fibre or cellular.

UK OneWeb

The firm had hoped to gain first mover advantage in the satellite broadband space, believing the combination of its harmonised spectrum and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellation design would give it technological supremacy.

The venture secured billions in cash from high-profile investors, with a funding round last year raising $1.25 billion from the likes of Japanese giant Softbank, Qualcomm and the Government of Rwanda. So far, it has launched 74 satellites and built 44 ground stations and had hoped to launch a total of 650 with a view to a commercial launch in 2021.

However, this vision was threatened when OneWeb filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March, sparking a bidding war. The UK government decided to get involved because it believes OneWeb would allow the UK to assume a leadership role in the nascent commercial space industry.

It had been speculated the government had hoped OneWeb could help provide a platform for a UK-developed satellite navigation system, however it is suggested that the use of low-orbit technology would be a complicated endeavour.

The new owners have put former Thomson Reuters COO Neil Masterson in charge and have announced plans to launch an additional 36 satellites on December 17. Launches will continue throughout the next two years and the hope is that a global service will be made available in 2022.

“OneWeb has a strong social purpose to improve the world’s access to information, which I share,” said Masterson. “It has great talent, a compelling commercial opportunity, and is supported by committed and knowledgeable owners and investors.

“Our December launch puts the UK firmly in the global space business, alongside acknowledged Indian telecoms experts, Bharti Global. OneWeb will be a model for responsible co-operation in Space.”

“This strategic investment demonstrates Government’s commitment to the UK’s space sector in the long-term and our ambition to put Britain at the cutting edge of the latest advances in space technology,” added business secretary Alok Sharma.

“Access to our own global fleet of satellites has the potential to connect people worldwide, providing fast UK-backed broadband from the Shetlands to the Sahara and from Pole to Pole. This deal gives us the chance to build on our strong advanced manufacturing and services base in the UK, creating jobs and technical expertise.”

Steve McCaskill is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with eight years' experience. I write about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.