Bankrupt OneWeb seeks license for 48,000 satellites, even more than SpaceX

SpaceX and OneWeb have asked for US permission to launch tens of thousands of additional satellites into low Earth orbit.

SpaceX’s application to launch 30,000 satellites—in addition to the nearly 12,000 it already has permission for—is consistent with SpaceX’s previously announced plans for Starlink.

OneWeb’s application to launch nearly 48,000 satellites is surprising because the satellite-broadband company filed for bankruptcy in March. OneWeb is highly unlikely to launch a significant percentage of these satellites under its current structure, as the company reportedly “axed most of its staff” when it filed for bankruptcy and says it intends to use bankruptcy proceedings “to pursue a sale of its business in order to maximize the value of the company.” Getting FCC approval to launch more satellites could improve the value of OneWeb’s assets and give more options to whoever buys the company.

“OneWeb has already secured debtor-in-possession financing and expects to soon exit the Chapter 11 process in a manner that maximizes the value of OneWeb’s strategic assets and also ensures a viable path forward for its stakeholders and customers,” the company said in its FCC application.

The SpaceX and OneWeb applications were filed yesterday because of an FCC deadline. Other providers such as Telesat (1,671 satellites), Kepler (360 satellites), and Viasat (288 satellites) filed applications for smaller low-Earth-orbit constellations. Mangata Networks filed an application for 791 satellites in medium-Earth orbits.

“It’s important to understand that the reason OneWeb filed for so many satellites is that it will make others’ efforts more difficult, especially [for Amazon subsidiary] Kuiper, and thereby potentially enhance the value of OneWeb’s first gen license. Similar rationale to SpaceX’s 30K satellite proposal,” satellite-industry consultant Tim Farrar wrote on Twitter.

FCC rules give satellite licensees six years to launch 50 percent of licensed satellites and nine years to launch all of them, unless a waiver is granted.

Low-Earth orbits for lower latencies

OneWeb already had permission to launch 720 satellites, and its application seeks authorization of a second phase consisting of 47,844 satellites. OneWeb did not ask for a change in its orbital altitude of 1,200km. The company provided the FCC with more technical details on its plan in this document.

“Because of the use of combined orbits, the OneWeb satellites essentially pass over all parts of the Earth’s surface and therefore, in principle, have the ability to provide service to all Earth locations,” OneWeb wrote. “Every point on the Earth’s surface will see, at all times, a OneWeb satellite at an elevation no less than 55º, with increasing minimum elevation angles with latitude. For instance, users in Alaska will always experience elevation angles significantly higher than 55º.”

Low-Earth-orbit satellites are expected to provide much lower latency and faster speeds than geostationary satellites that orbit at about 35,000km. OneWeb said its users “will experience round-trip latency of less than 50 milliseconds, which is approximately 1/13th of the latency of GSO [geo-stationary orbit] satellites, and comparable to terrestrial networks.” OneWeb has also said its technology can provide average latency of 32ms.

SpaceX has publicly predicted sub-20ms latency for its service, but the company also used a sub-50ms figure in its application to the FCC and said this level of latency “is nearly unnoticeable to consumers.” The FCC has measured Comcast’s median latency at just over 20ms during peak usage hours and Verizon FiOS at just over 10ms.

SpaceX’s FCC filing says its proposed 30,000 satellites would be for a “Gen2 System” that builds on the first-generation system the company is currently deploying. More than 85 percent of the proposed 30,000 satellites would “operate at very low altitudes below 400km, using eight total orbital altitudes ranging from 328km to 614km.”

SpaceX’s application continued:

Just as large deployments of new densified 5G networks are helping those in more urban environments, the densified satellite constellation SpaceX proposes will substantially increase capacity and drive up the number of consumers even in rural and remote areas with access to truly robust broadband. While SpaceX’s next-generation constellation will use only a small fraction of the number of antennas being deployed for terrestrial technologies, its spectrally efficient designs and intensive spectral reuse will allow it to bring to rural areas the type of services and prices previously reserved only for urban customers.

By operating at low and very low altitudes, the SpaceX Gen2 System will enable smaller spot beams and greater satellite diversity, achieving the intensive frequency reuse needed to heighten capacity available anywhere in the world. And by guaranteeing multiple satellites in view for every customer located at any point on the ground, SpaceX’s next-generation system incorporates the flexibility necessary to coordinate with other spectrum users while still delivering robust service, even in a crowded spectrum setting.

OneWeb had launched 74 satellites before filing for bankruptcy. SpaceX has launched about 420 satellites so far, is aiming to provide service later this year, and just signed a deal with the US Army to test Starlink for military use.

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