Industry Spotlight: OneWeb’s Eric Gillenwater Talks LEO Satellite Connectivity

January 24th, 2022 by · Leave a Comment

One area of the telecom and internet infrastructure space I don’t talk about as much as I could is that of the satellite operators.  However, big things are afoot in orbit these days, and one of the companies busy up there right now is OneWeb.  OneWeb got new owners and funding last winter, and is closing in the completion of its LEO satellite constellation.  With us today to take a closer look is Eric Gillenwater, VP and Business Head of Global Carrier and Enterprise at OneWeb.   Prior to joining the company a year ago, Eric looked after Bharti Airtel’s American and European businesses.

TR: Where does OneWeb fit into the bandwidth ecosystem? 

EG: OneWeb is a low Earth orbit satellite provider.  With Low Earth Orbit satellites, customers can effectively get a terrestrial, fiber-like, enterprise-grade experience as compared to that of historically geosynchronous satellites.  By being able to offer low latency applications and the associated class of service,  a whole world of use cases are now possible that weren’t previously able to be served. We actually are more just like a third-party access provider in the sky, but we speak the same telco language and it is no different than onboarding another third-party access provider. Our solution fits into the product portfolios of that of our carrier partners. We are not here to displace fiber.  Where there’s fiber, we’re not a primary solution, although we can be a redundant solution. But our solutions also fit into the remote parts of the world.

TR: What does that infrastructure look like today?

EG: Right now, we have 394 satellites that are in orbit out of the total 648 satellites that we need for our global constellation. Our orbit is at 1,200 kilometers, and we will be operational from the 50th parallel north over the course of the next 30 to 45 days and able to offer 24×7 service to a large portion of Canada, Alaska, UK, Scandinavia, Germany, and other areas.   We will move on towards full global coverage by the end of next year. We use a polar orbit, so can do 50 degrees north and we can do 50 degrees south but there’s not many people past 50 degrees south except for McMurdo Air Force Base near the South Pole. So we are starting with 50 degrees north and then have full global coverage as the constellation becomes more populated.

TR: Who is launching the satellites and where are they being launched from?

EG: We contract with Arianespace for launches, and our satellites have been primarily launched out of Vostochny in Russia and Baikonur in Kazakhstan. We do have a couple of launches coming up out of French Guiana. But given the payload that we have, which is quite sizable, there are only a few launch options that we have. We’ve actually been using Soyuz rockets, which has been a tried and true launch vehicle. The launches have been going up roughly every 30 days for the past year and we’ll continue to do that through next year.

TR: What kinds of latency and capacity can your technology deliver?

EG: For capacity, we have divided the world into grids, and we can support up to 500Mbps in each grid.  There’s a one-way latency and a two-way latency. Our constellation is designed with a user terminal at a fixed location transmitting up to our satellites, then to one of between 42 and 45 satellite network portals, or Earth stations, around the globe, followed by a connection back into a traditional carrier endpoint. Our one-way latency is around 30 milliseconds, but the latency that counts is the round trip which is 70-80 milliseconds depending on location.  There are other constellations in various shapes and forms, and we coordinate with them from an operational perspective. And we feel we are actually at the Goldilocks zone, because we only require less than 600 satellites to be operational, which is a relatively low number. The closer you get to Earth, the more satellites you need, but the farther away you get the longer the latency is. By supporting that 70-80ms latency, which is well within requirements to support 5G and IoT solutions, we feel pretty good about where we’re sitting.

TR: Once you have the currently planned 650 satellites in orbit, what’s the next stage of evolution of the infrastructure?

EG: This is what we call our ‘generation one’ satellite design in constellation. We’re looking at ways to add capacity, whether that’s through adding additional satellites or developing a new generation of satellites. OneWeb has spectrum prioritization from the ITU, which gives us some optionality on what we so choose to do. 

TR: What types of customers are you targeting?

EG: We have four different verticals. We have carrier and enterprise, which I lead. We have the government vertical, which is primarily military. And then we also have maritime and aviation. Our model is that of a distribution partner arrangement. We actually want to work with the carriers who then can work either through with enterprises or consumers or with their own infrastructure projects. We want to be part of the solution, not a standalone solution.. There’s no one that will know a British multinational better than a company like BT, and no one that will know an American multinational better than a company like AT&T.  So we don’t want to compete with them. We actually want to be part of their ecosystem.

There are other satellite models that are out there that are looking to go direct to customers and communities. Our message to carriers and competitive providers is that we’re all on the same team.  We want to be part of their solution. We’re are a new friend.

TR: Are most of the opportunities in very remote regions, or just rural underserved areas closer to home?

EG: Both.  You would be amazed the volume of small and medium businesses in the United States that are served by satellite. It’s in the hundreds of thousands.

TR: What infrastructure is necessary at the enterprise location?  Just a dish on a roof?

EG: The dish doesn’t have to be on the roof. It can be on a standalone pole. From an azimuth perspective we require a 60-degree look angle. One of the challenges of some satellites is the horizons are so low that trees cause a lot of interference. Because our constellation is moving around and we’re continuing to transition from satellite to satellite, our dishes can look mostly straight up. It’s similar to when you’re driving in your car and your cell connection is passed from cell tower to cell tower.  It’s unnoticeable to you. Our model is the inverse, where the user terminal is fixed but the satellites are moving.

TR: Which verticals are you finding the most traction with so far?

EG: A lot of our initial success have been with carriers in Alaska and Canada and also within northern parts of the UK and Europe.  These are places that are just historically challenging to serve, and our solution fits very nicely. Our maritime and aviation solutions won’t be available until early 2023, but we are engaged with them and having good success.

TR: What does your ownership structure and funding look like today?

EG: Bharti Global is the primary shareholder.  The second-largest shareholder is Eutelsat, which is a geostationary satellite company and probably the longest operating satellite provider in the world. Then there is the British government, which with Bharti actually purchased OneWeb out of bankruptcy.  Hughes and Softbank are also investors, and Hanwha announced their additional investment earlier this year. We have raised around $2.7B over the past 12 months, and we’re fully funded for our launches.  We actually have a little bit more than that which is a good position to be in.

TR: What’s the biggest challenge ahead for OneWeb’s rollout?

EG: We’re in the transition of going from a concept up to an operational entity. We are all operators at heart, but it’s easier to do when companies don’t have customers yet. That’s probably the next hurdle we’ll have to cross as an organization, and given the operational experience and rigor that our company has from our investors, we’re more than up to that challenge.

TR:  Thank you for talking with Telecom Ramblings!



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Categories: Industry Spotlight · satellite

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