Thursday, 18 June 2015

Airbus Teams up with OneWeb for Satellite Constellation

Airbus may be known primarily as a global manufacturer of commercial aircraft, but that is not stopping the company from teaming up with a British partner to embark on an ambitious communications project designed to provide internet access to underserved countries.  Airbus officials recently revealed their plans at the Paris Airshow.

Airbus and communications partner OneWeb took the occasion of the annual aerospace exhibition to announce plans for a 900-spacecraft constellation that will include 600 satellites and hundreds of additional vehicles working with ground-based receivers to provide telephone and internet communications.  OneWeb will be the service provider to end-users while Airbus has described itself as the programme's 'industrial partner'.

As an industrial partner, it is expected that Airbus will foot the bill for most of the satellite construction throughout the project.  This could be a risky move on its part, given the amount of cash it will tie up in the constellation before it becomes operational years from now.  As for precedent, other companies have attempted to create data communications constellations in the past only to run out of money before realising a profit.  If Airbus and OneWeb are going to make the plan work, they will need a tremendous amount of funding and an equal amount of patience.

The Plan

A report from the BBC suggests that Airbus will begin building satellites for the constellation in France, via their Toulouse manufacturing plant.  Manufacturing will shift to the United States at some point.  While Airbus builds the satellites, there is speculation that the Virgin Group will be working on the rockets necessary to put the equipment into orbit.  Virgin is already in a good position to contribute in this way based on its commercial aerospace travel programme, however neither Virgin Group nor founder Richard Branson has officially commented on the project.

OneWeb founder Greg Wyler sees his company eventually providing 20 planes of satellites, in low orbit, transmitting signals between themselves and equipment on the ground.  This is not new territory for Wyler. He already has experience after establishing a 12-spacecraft constellation to provide telecommunications services and broadband internet.  His 03B network launched in 2013 with hundreds of millions of US dollars in committed funding.  He has since secured a total of $1.2 billion to complete construction and deployment of the network.

Both OneWeb and Airbus are confident that they can make their latest dream of a modern, space-age network a reality within a few years.  If they do, it will give new meaning to cloud computing.  However, if the venture fails, the companies risk losing billions that could bankrupt both.  We hope they will tread lightly in the early development stages of the project.

OneWeb is just the latest company striving to provide broadband internet access in developing countries.  Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have all been working on their projects for years.  The company that wins the race, if it is won at all, will be well positioned moving into the future.



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