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Why it’s difficult to tell who’s winning the satellite broadband race

The collective vision of SpaceX and OneWeb is exciting: very low latency communications and internet access made available in every global location, including isolated rural spots, air space and ships in the middle of oceans.

They plan to achieve this via operating vast fleets of little satellites circling the earth in low-orbit trajectories, roughly 350-400km from the surface.

OneWeb

OneWeb’s satellites are built by OneWeb Satellites, which is a joint venture between OneWeb and Airbus Defence and Space.

OneWeb intends to launch more than 30 satellites per rocket, and it has plans to grow its constellation to more than 650 satellites via monthly launches. OneWeb is staking a claim that it will be able to offer full global commercial coverage by 2021.

SpaceX

Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s (pictured) SpaceX has been reticent to share much detail about the progress of its low-orbit satellite fleet. It is known that the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has granted permission to the company to launch and operate a network of several thousands of low Earth orbit communication satellites.

Thanks to the latest communications technologies and laser beams running between satellites, it is expected that financial traders might be able to benefit from ultra-low latency communications faster than land-based optical fibre networks because apparently, the signals can travel through space faster than on cables. But SpaceX has not been very forthcoming about ongoing launches and it is therefore not clear when it may offer global connectivity.

The challenges ahead

Both companies face many challenges, the most serious of which is the incredible cost of putting these birds up into orbit. With many thousands in orbit, space is also increasingly crowded with both satellite and debris and junk. The satellites constellations will need constant upgrades and maintenance, and once past their sell-by date, what happens to them then?

OneWeb is sharing more details and has a programme afoot to continue steadily launching its satellites. It has also named its first two customers: Talia in Africa and the Middle East and Intermatica in Europe. This transparency gives the industry a sense that the company has a clear purpose and the means to execute. SpaceX would do well to follow its lead.

An extended version of this feature originally appeared on Verdict, which is part of the same group as NS Tech and GlobalData