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OneWeb Explains FCC Application for 48,000 Constellation Satellites

By Jeffrey Hill | May 27, 2020
OneWeb Graphic

An artist’s rendition of the original OneWeb constellation. Photo: OneWeb

OneWeb has told the FCC that it wants to increase the number of satellites in its constellation to 48,000, the Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite operator announced May 27.

OneWeb, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March, said the new modification request will update its existing U.S. authorization to match the FCC’s latest system specifications outlined in a recently announced second processing round for Ku- and Ka-band systems.

OneWeb spokesperson Adam Davidson told Via Satellite that the company’s request to increase the number of its satellites was added on as the second phase of its modification application and not directly related to either the FCC’s second processing round specifications or the FCC’s $16 billion FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). Davidson would not confirm whether or not OneWeb actually applied for the RDOF.

Some have speculated that the filing was related to the RDOF because the subsidy program’s deadline had recently passed on Wednesday, May 27. Satellite operator Viasat also confirmed Tuesday during an earnings call that it will abandon its originally planned 20-satellite Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) constellation and pursue a LEO constellation of approximately 300 satellites that could participate in the FCC rural broadband program.

Analyst Tim Farrar of TMF Associates, however, believes that OneWeb’s application is a strategic maneuver to expand its constellation to a scale that makes it difficult for other applicants to coordinate and deploy their own systems successfully.

“The FCC rules do not give any meaningful bidding advantage to LEO systems compared to (Geostationary) GEO systems in this year’s RDOF auction,” Farrar told Via Satellite. “GEO systems have a significant advantage in terminal costs, so any LEO player, even Starlink, will find it hard to compete with Viasat and Hughes … Since [Amazon] Kuiper’s application is in the second round, they are going to be most affected by these challenges and Amazon might therefore be more likely to acquire OneWeb’s first round license instead of pursuing their own second-round license.”

OneWeb seeks both flexibility for the future and viable exit strategies as it navigates the Chapter 11 process. In a recent interview with Via Satellite, OneWeb Founder Greg Wyler said that he wasn’t sure that the value created by constellations is, “worth the infinite dollars that are being put in [to these systems] … In terms of pure capital, these things are really, really difficult, not because they can’t make money, but because the capital required is so high it rapidly reduces the pool of potential investors that can get involved,” said Wyler.

OneWeb currently operates 74 LEO satellites that have been launched as part of its originally planned 650-satellite constellation. The operator first received FCC approval in 2017 to provide connectivity services in the U.S. as part of the Commission’s first processing round for Ku- and Ka-band systems. Last August, OneWeb met similar requirements for the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), allowing it to utilize global priority Ku- and Ka-band spectrum rights.

OneWeb CEO Adrian Steckel said in the Wednesday release that company is continuing its restructuring and sale process and has received “considerable” global interest from potential buyers. “This significant [requested] increase in the size of the OneWeb constellation enables long-term flexibility and ensures we will be ready for the demand, future growth, and technology changes to come,” said Steckel.