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OneWeb and Intelsat Sign the First Multi-Orbit Broadband Agreement – More to Come

A Boeing 777 connected to OneWeb LEO and Intelsat GEO satellites during this test flight. (source).

Last October, I reviewed multi-orbit tests and plans of several low Earth orbit (LEO), medium Earth orbit (MEO), and Geostationary (GEO) broadband satellite companies and quoted Neil Masterson, CEO of LEO operator OneWeb as saying, “Interoperability with GEO satellites must happen—it’s common sense ... Customers don’t care whether it’s a LEO satellite or a GEO satellite—all they want is connectivity.”

LEO, MEO, and GEO satellites (not to scale)

In June, OneWeb demonstrated in-flight connectivity to a Boeing 777 jetliner, achieving a download speed of 260 mb/s. Ben Griffin, OneWeb vice president, says the speed is constrained by the current aircraft antenna, and their satellite spot beams are capable of 500 mb/s. (777 carrying capacity is from 312-388 passengers).

Last week, OneWeb announced the first of what I expect to be many multi-orbit deals. Intelsat, an established GEO provider of in-flight connectivity, will distribute OneWeb’s forthcoming LEO in-flight connectivity. The companies expect the multi-orbit solution to be in service by 2024, and they promise seamless connectivity with OneWeb LEO satellites for latency-sensitive applications and Intelsat GEO satellites for applications where latency is not critical.

Note the emphasis on the word seamless above. The transition between constellations must be transparent to users. Automatic routing based on packet type is required and is well understood and implemented in different systems. For example, OneWeb had previously demonstrated LEO-GEO connectivity with Hughes using their ActiveClassifier technology that “automatically identifies different types of data and apps and tags them with a specific priority setting using advanced heuristics algorithms.”

It is likely that OneWeb will soon be interoperating with three GEO operators. They have demonstrated seamless LEO-GEO integration with Hughes, have agreed to partner with Intelsat on in-flight connectivity, and have signed a memorandum of understanding to be acquired by GEO operator Eutelsat. This is the sort of interoperability promised by Neil Masterson.

Will we see multi-orbit connectivity standards?

This is the first LEO-GEO broadband effort, but I expect many others because they solve problems for both LEO and GEO Internet service providers. LEO service providers are capacity constrained. SpaceX’s Starlink LEO service is currently over-subscribed at some locations in the U.S. and Canada. They will add capacity by launching improved satellites and offloading latency-tolerant traffic to a GEO partner, freeing capacity for more valuable latency-sensitive traffic

GEO operators will seek LEO partners or, as in the case of Telesat, develop their own LEO constellations to provide low look-angle connectivity in polar regions and to serve latency-sensitive applications. Dan Goldberg, CEO of GEO ISP Telesat, acknowledged this when explaining why they were creating their own LEO constellation saying, “I guess it’s something we had to do. For us, you have no choice but to land at LEO.”

This post focuses on one application, in-flight connectivity, and one LEO operator, OneWeb, but this is just the start. For example, Intelsat and OneWeb have also been working on military applications and Viasat is working on multi-orbit solutions with several non-GEO operators or prospective operators and conducting a multi-layer satellite communication study for the European Space Agency. Intelsat is reportedly in merger talks with MEO operator SES. The elephant in the room is SpaceX. Elon Musk is a big fan of do-it-yourself integration, but it’s hard to imagine SpaceX operating its own GEO satellites—partnering with and launching satellites for a GEO operator seems more likely. I wonder whether China SatNet is looking for a GEO partner.

Update Mar 11, 2023:

OneWeb considers multi-orbit interoperability a strategic capability and now Eutelsat has signed a multi-million euro deal to provide their GEO capacity and OneWeb’s LEO capacity to Intelsat.

OneWeb is expected to launch the final batch of its first-generation LEO satellites this month and be in full operation in a few months. Eutelsat operates a large constellation of GEO satellites as does Intelsat.

This gives OneWeb a lead over SpaceX and other potential LEO providers of aircraft connectivity. It will be interesting how the handoffs between LEO and GEO satellites are handled, how it affects the passenger user interface, and how well in-flight connectivity performs in a large, fully booked airliner.

Update Nov 12, 2023:

Eutelsat has said full-scale OneWeb Gen 2 satellites would be bulkier, able to provide three to five times more capacity, and would only be around 300 in number because Eutelsat’s geostationary fleet would help cover high-demand areas. However, last year Eutelsat ordered a multi-orbit compatible geostationary broadband satellite serving the Americas, implying that multi-orbit connectivity would not be available with its legacy satellites.

Update Dec 1, 2023:

Intelsat has signed multi-orbit deals with both SpaceX and OneWeb. The flat panel antenna on this vehicle can communicate with both Intelsat’s GEO satellites and SpaceX’s Starlink LEO satellites. This ruggedized antenna is only available for DOD and some other government agencies for now. Intelsat will also offer multi-orbit service with Eutelsat-OneWeb LEO satellites on 500 American Airlines regional jets starting in early 2024.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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