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Hughes and Bharti-backed OneWeb to provide satellite broadband in remote areas

Satellite constellations like OneWeb and SpaceX’s Starlink have been eyeing the Indian market, where large gaps in rural coverage seem primed for service. As Bharti-backed OneWeb signs an MOU with Hughes, which has been in the Indian satellite space for a while, low-earth orbit satellite broadband may soon be a reality.

Bharti-backed OneWeb and satellite company Hughes will provide satellite broadband in rural and remote parts of India, the companies announced in a press release. Hughes said that it had signed an MOU with OneWeb, under which the company would develop ground infrastructure to connect to OneWeb’s satellite network, and work together to improve access to backhaul bandwidth in places where such broadband will be made available. Backhaul connectivity is one of the largest problems faced by telecom operators, as it either requires a lot of spectrum or terrestrial cabling with high bandwidth that  is harder to build in rural areas. OneWeb runs a low-earth orbit satellite constellation, a non-geostationary setup that works as a mesh that blankets the earth to provide internet access covering many parts of the earth at once. Hughes equipment will be used to connect to OneWeb’s LEO constellation on earth, the company said.

The government, telecom operators and private companies in the satellite business have said that they are keen on satellite broadband. With LEO constellations like OneWeb and SpaceX’s Starlink, existing networks in the sky can immediately provide connectivity down on earth. But there are several policy obstacles to clear — as we explained on Thursday, spectrum has to be sold, the Spacecom Policy has to allow for such LEO constellations, security questions have to be worked out, and, as a DoT official explained, “a geography-specific licencing framework” may have to be set up. If these hurdles are crossed, though, satellite broadband in India is as simple as installing an earth gateway and uplinking to constellations that are already capable of providing speeds comparable to residential connections in the market today.

“OneWeb ready by 2022”

The timeline on satellite broadband in India is similar to the timeline on 5G: at least one provider will soon be ready to roll the technology out rapidly — whenever the government is ready. OneWeb, whose ownership Bharti shares with the UK government, will be service-ready in India by May 2022, Sunil Bharti Mittal, Bharti Executive Chairman told the Economic Times. Mittal said the company was “working feverishly” to roll the service out in several countries, of which India is one. Since service is being prepared for several countries simultaneously, as far as coverage is concerned, specific work for India can be completed simultaneously with other markets OneWeb is planning on serving — a benefit unique to LEO constellations.

Hughes, on the other hand, is old money in the satellite world. But its partnership with OneWeb likely signals that it is transitioning into the LEO satellite business. While signing the MOU with OneWeb, it also signed a similar agreement with the company for serving enterprise customers in the United States (AT&T signed a similar deal with OneWeb on Thusrday). Along with the deal, Hughes conducted a test to switch a ground receiver from being connected to a geostationary Hughes satellite to OneWeb’s LEO constellation.

How Hughes geostationary satellites and OneWeb’s LEO work together: “The test, recorded on August 26, featured the successful real-time, seamless switching between the Hughes JUPITER 2 geostationary, high-throughput satellite (HTS) and OneWeb’s low latency, high speed LEO constellation,” Hughes said. This kind of switching would enable networks on the ground to switch dynamically between technologies depending on whether they needed low latency or high throughput, the company said.

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Hughes, OneWeb and India

Hughes, through its parent company EchoStar, is an investor in OneWeb. It is also develops gateway electronics and the core module that will power user terminals on earth that will connect terrestrial networks to the constellation. “OneWeb is building its initial constellation of 648 LEO satellites. Services will begin this year to the Arctic region including Alaska, Canada, and the UK,” Hughes said. “By late 2022 OneWeb will be offering its high-speed, low latency connectivity services globally. Service testing on the satellites already in orbit is underway, using gateways that Hughes is building for the network.”

While OneWeb is yet to begin operations in India, Hughes has been an established player here. In Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep, Hughes won a contract in 2019 to expand existing satellite connectivity, which was at that time the only way for the two archipelagos to access the internet. Since then, Andaman and Nicobar has been connected via undersea fiber cables to Chennai, significantly expanding the bandwidth theoretically available to it.

Hughes seems to want to do business in more than just rural areas, though. In a webinar last November, Pranav Roach, President of Hughes Network Systems India, said, “I hear frequently the insistence that satellite being a technology for remote and far-flung areas. I find it incredible that in today’s day and age, policymakers have to decide where what technology goes. In the way the technology is, and the way the access is, the per-bit prices for the bandwidth rates have come down hugely. So why should it be that it’s only for the villages, and not urban areas? There are urban areas which don’t have affordable broadband. So this insistence should go, and be left to operators and consumers for affordable access.”

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I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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