The British Government, alongside Indian conglomerate Bharti Global Ltd, have secured the future of satellite broadband provider OneWeb.

The government announced last week that it and Bharti had acquired the firm, bringing it out of bankruptcy and securing its future.

OneWeb had gone into administration in late March, despite raising $3 billion (£2.4bn) in venture funding since its founding, and putting 74 satellites into orbit.

Government ownership

The firm had made the decision to file for bankruptcy protection in the United States as the Coronavirus lockdown began, after it ran out of cash and failed to secure additional funding.

Lead investor Softbank, which had led two previous funding rounds in 2016 and 2019, had backed away from further funding talks with OneWeb.

But then in July it was announced that the British government, alongside Bharti Global Limited, would acquire the firm for $1 billion.

The Government reportedly took a £400 million stake in London-based OneWeb.

Bharti, via its Bharti Airtel division, is the third largest mobile operator in the world, with over 425 million customers, and has “its own extensive mobile broadband networks and enterprise business, which will act as the testing ground for all OneWeb products, services, and applications.”

Now both parties have been successful in acquiring the firm.

“This is a significant strategic investment, demonstrating the government’s commitment to the UK’s space sector and ambition to put Britain at the forefront of a new commercial space-age,” announced the government.

It said that OneWeb is now staffing up to complete the development of its first generation constellation, adding new employees in the UK.

Besides its 74 satellites launched and already in place, the government said the firm is launching another 34-36 satellites in December, bringing its in-orbit fleet to 110 satellites.

“OneWeb is on track to begin commercial connectivity services to the UK and the Arctic region in late 2021 and will expand to delivering global services in 2022,” it said.

UK space push

“This strategic investment demonstrates government’s commitment to the UK’s space sector in the long-term and our ambition to put Britain at the cutting edge of the latest advances in space technology,” said Business Secretary Alok Sharma.

“Access to our own global fleet of satellites has the potential to connect people worldwide, providing fast UK-backed broadband from the Shetlands to the Sahara and from Pole to Pole,” said Sharma.

“This deal gives us the chance to build on our strong advanced manufacturing and services base in the UK, creating jobs and technical expertise,” Sharma added.

The government said it was committed to work with OneWeb’s shareholder partners to use this investment as a platform to promote UK jobs and supply chains, and protect UK critical assets and intellectual property.

The idea is that OneWeb will provide a new source of broadband connectivity for businesses, communities, and governments around the world. It could also help provide low latency connectivity for industry sectors including aviation, maritime, government, and enterprise.

“Together with our partners at HMG, we are looking forward to a new Low Earth Orbit opportunity,” said Sunil Bharti, founder and chairman, Bharti Global. “Innovation, resilience and growth in the high-tech sector are all served by this powerful global opportunity.”

“By the end of 2022, OneWeb will be a truly global force for good,” he added.

OneWeb was formed in 2012, and has been developing satellite tech from its facilities both in the UK and in the United States.

The UK government said it will have a final say over any future sale of the company, and over future access to OneWeb technology by other countries on national security grounds.

Crowded market?

In February this year OneWeb had launched 34 satellites into orbit to join the first six broadband satellites in February 2019. It intends to build an initial network of 650 satellites around the world operating at 1,200km above the earth.

It added another 34 satellites in late March, just before it entered Chapter 11.

Unlike SpaceX’s Starlink, OneWeb intends to sell its connectivity services to governments and corporate customers that provide internet service to airplanes, ships and boats, via nearly 650 satellites.

It will eventually sell bandwidth to consumer-facing internet providers

Yet rival SpaceX continues to build and launch its own constellation of internet satellites.

SpaceX currently has a total of 700 broadband satellites in orbit for the Starlink network – its network architecture and reach requires more satellites than OneWeb.

Other companies racing to construct satellite-based broadband networks include Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which intends to deploy a 3,200-satellite network known as Project Kuiper.

Additional players include Kepler, LeoSat and Telesat Canada.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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