With satellite services forming a key component of BT’s vision to enable digital solutions anywhere in the country by 2028, the leading UK telco has agreed terms for a new distribution partner agreement, with this year’s surprise hit operator OneWeb to provide low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite communication services across the group.
Formed in 2012 with the aim of addressing the connectivity needs of underserved communities, OneWeb has always claimed that its satellite network has a unique capability to provide improved capacity, mobile resilience, backhaul and coverage, including fixed wireless access, in challenging geographic locations.
The company developed “cutting-edge” satellite technology from its bases in the UK and US, emulating Elon Musk’s Starlink project, with a constellation of global gateway stations and a range of user terminals to provide an affordable, fast, high-bandwidth, low-latency communications service, connected to internet of things (IoT) devices and making a pathway for mass adoption of 5G services.
However, the company’s evolution was one of struggle, and it filed for bankruptcy in the US in March 2020 after failing to find private investment. It was rescued by a $500m investment from the UK government and Bharti Global, and returned to business in December 2020 with a 36-satellite payload.
The launch of more than 30 craft on 21 August 2021 brought OneWeb’s total in-orbit constellation to 288 satellites. OneWeb is expected to deliver global coverage by June 2022 through a constellation of 648 LEO satellites and is poised to deliver services from the North Pole to the 50th parallel, covering the entire UK, later in 2021.
The new partnership supports BT’s wider network ambition, set out in July this year, to deliver digital solutions across the entire UK by 2028, through a combination of an expanded network and on-demand, requestable solutions anywhere beyond. In building a converged, software-defined network, BT said it would integrate terrestrial and non-terrestrial technologies to deliver on the goal of “seamless, ubiquitous connectivity”.
Philip Jansen, BT Group
The agreement also marks a clear path towards the first LEO solutions being available for customers within a year. As a next step, BT will test capabilities in its Bristol lab to demonstrate how they integrate with existing services. Current capacity levels within OneWeb satellites mean initial trials will focus on its role as a supplementary, low-latency backhaul solution to sites where additional capacity or a backup solution is required, and to deliver improved resilience for business customers.
On successful completion, BT will begin early adopter trials for UK and international customers, expected early in 2022. As OneWeb grows its capacity, the firms suggest that the list of future use cases could also widen, opening up the opportunity to explore the use of satellite for IoT backhaul and fixed wireless access in rural areas.
Commenting on the deal and what it could bring to the telco, BT Group chief executive Philip Jansen said: “Space is an emerging and enormous digital opportunity, and this is an important step towards harnessing its potential for BT’s customers across the globe. We will put OneWeb’s technology through its paces in our UK labs with the goal of delivering live trials in early 2022.
“Delivered securely and at scale, satellite solutions will be an important part of our plans to expand connectivity throughout the UK and globally, and to further diversify the range of services we can offer our customers.”
OneWeb CEO Neil Masterson added: “BT has taken the lead in the recognition of LEO satellite’s advantage. We are delighted as this agreement with BT Group represents an important strategic partnership for OneWeb as we continue to make progress towards our operational launch.
“We are excited to be playing such a key role in improving the resilience of the overall telecoms infrastructure in the UK. OneWeb’s connectivity platform will help bridge the last digital divides across the country and enhance the nation’s digital infrastructure.”