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World getting closer to Internet from the skies

Context:

Following the successful launch of 36 satellites on May 28, OneWeb’s Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellation reached 218 in-orbit satellites. The company only has one more launch to complete before it obtains the capacity to enable its ‘Five to 50’ service of offering internet connectivity to all regions north of 50 degrees latitude.

Relevance:

GS-III: Science and Technology

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. What is OneWeb?
  2. LEO technology
  3. Criticisms of LEO satellites

What is OneWeb?

  • OneWeb is a global communications company that aims to deliver broadband satellite Internet around the world through its fleet of LEO satellites.
  • In 2010, the company declared bankruptcy but was able to resume operations following an inflow of investment from a consortium consisting of the UK Government, Hughes Communication, Sunil Mittal’s Bharti Global Limited, SoftBank and Eutelsat, a leading European satellite operator.
  • OneWeb satellites are built at a OneWeb and Airbus joint venture facility in Florida that can produce up to two satellites a day.
  • The launch roll-out of the satellites is facilitated by French company Arianespace using Russian made Soyuz rockets.

The company has announced plans to enter the Indian market by 2022.

LEO technology

  • LEO satellites have been orbiting the planet since the 1990s, providing companies and individuals with various communication services. LEO satellites are positioned around 500km-2000km from earth, compared to stationary orbit satellites which are approximately 36,000km away.
  • Latency, or the time needed for data to be sent and received, is contingent on proximity. As LEO satellites orbit closer to the earth, they are able to provide stronger signals and faster speeds than traditional fixed-satellite systems.
  • Additionally, because signals travel faster through space than through fibre-optic cables, they also have the potential to rival if not exceed existing ground-based networks.
  • However, LEO satellites travel at a speed of 27,000 kph and complete a full circuit of the planet in 90-120 minutes. As a result, individual satellites can only make direct contact with a land transmitter for a short period of time thus requiring massive LEO satellite fleets and consequently, a significant capital investment.
  • Due to these costs, of the three mediums of Internet – fibre, spectrum and satellite – the latter is the most expensive.
  • OneWeb’s target market will therefore be rural populations and military units operating away from urban areas.

Criticisms of LEO satellites

  • During the days of the Sputnik and Apollo missions, governments dominated and regulated space-based activities. However, today, the balance of power has shifted from countries to companies.
  • Even government entities like the US Department of Defence have turned to private providers, entering into a contract to buy satellites from SpaceX.
  • As a result, there are questions related to who regulates these companies, especially given the myriad of nations that contribute to individual projects.
  • OneWeb has to receive requisite licences to operate in each country, including, in most cases, from the country’s telecommunications sector and department of space. All those considerations make for a complicated regulatory framework.
  • There are logistical challenges with launching thousands of satellites into space as well. Satellites can sometimes be seen in the night skies which creates difficulties for astronomers as the satellites reflect sunlight to earth, leaving streaks across images.

-Source: Indian Express

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September 2022
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