I recently attended the Satellite 2017 conference in Washington, DC, and there was a lot of talk regarding low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations. A half-dozen or so have been proposed, and in all likelihood not all will be successful.
The one that most experts would consider the most viable is the one proposed by OneWeb. And because Intelsat and OneWeb have announced plans to merge, I’m in a strong position to discuss how this LEO constellation will greatly benefit IGC’s customers!
OneWeb plans to launch 684 satellites that will circle the earth at an altitude of about 750 miles (1,200 km) to provide broadband service to users anywhere on the globe. OneWeb terminals and satellites will use the Ku-band frequency spectrum and will complement Intelsat’s global fleet of geosynchronous orbit (GEO) satellites.
Because the OneWeb satellites are in LEO orbit, far closer to earth than GEO spacecraft, users will be able to connect using very small terminals now in development. For our government customers, the combined Intelsat-OneWeb network will increase throughput, reduce latencies and provide a wide range of new communications capabilities.
For example, the Army has announced plans to use technology to establish command posts using Wi-Fi hotspots to communicate with soldiers and vehicles. With reach-back via the Intelsat-OneWeb network, these Army hotspots would have a global, quick deploy solution. In any terrain, in any location, commanders and soldiers could establish Wi-Fi networks with Internet access. These networks could be customized in scale to meet the needs of the tactical operation in the field.
Another possible application is OneWeb support to unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operations over the Arctic, an area recently opened to maritime lanes but beyond the reach of GEO satellites. The Group III UAS, such as Insitu’s ScanEagle, have flown in higher latitudes but have been limited to line-of-sight only. Group 4 and 5 UAS (e.g. Predator and Global Hawk) have also been limited by the look angle to GEO satellites in these higher latitudes.
OneWeb will have orbits crossing the polar caps and be virtually overhead of these UAS. The satellites’ high throughput will support military operations, rescue assistance and general surveillance, providing much greater flexibility and connectivity in these vital areas.
Humanitarian efforts in remote areas could also be enhanced by OneWeb’s capabilities, either through the use of hotspots that broadcast Wi-Fi signals or through direct connections to the satellites themselves with small user terminals. Such networks could provide non-government organizations operating in austere environments the broadband connectivity they need to accomplish their missions and help people around the world.
First responders could also benefit from OneWeb connectivity. In the United States alone, there are an estimated 10,000 separate and incompatible land-mobile radio networks serving police, fire and other emergency responders. Congress has appropriated money to establish a nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety. This network is years from completion and can only be used by devices with special chipsets in them. OneWeb offers an affordable alternative that would allow first responders to leverage existing devices and investments.
The operation of the OneWeb network is a few years away, but we are already planning how it will deliver value for a range of government and civil agencies. With the merger of Intelsat and OneWeb, IGC will become a one-stop, GEO/LEO source of new and innovative capabilities to help governments keep pace in a rapidly changing space environment.