A new internet satellite constellation, from tech pioneer OneWeb, means that a future where even the remotest areas can access super-fast broadband may be just over the horizon.
We are entering the age of the space start-up. What was once the domain of governments is now accessible to the private sector. In recent years we’ve seen the likes of Amazon’s Jeff Besos form Blue Origin and Elon Musk found SpaceX.
Lesser-known OneWeb does not look out of place in such company. It is certainly not lacking in ambition – with its mission to, “fully bridge the digital divide by 2027, making internet access available and affordable for everyone.” Thanks to the scope of its vision, the company has raised nearly $2 billion in equity so far.
Early next year, OneWeb, founded by tech entrepreneur Greg Wyler, expects to launch the first 10 satellites of a constellation that will eventually number 900 spacecraft. Yesterday, Wyler testified before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Technology at a hearing entitled, The Commercial Satellite Industry: What’s Up and What’s on the Horizon.
The sky’s the limit
Wyler revealed how the company’s network of satellites will provide broadband to Alaska, starting in 2019, and spread its reach across the whole of America over the ensuing year.
“OneWeb is moving full speed ahead to bridge the digital divide and bring high-speed Internet to some of the most remote corners of the globe,” said Wyler. “I welcome the Senate’s interest in the future of satellite technology, and how lawmakers, regulators, and private industry can work together to ensure sustainable space development.”
In the longer term, through investment that could reach $30 billion, the company hopes to expand its coverage to emerging markets and developing countries abroad. Currently, over 50 percent of the planet, including rural America, Europe and Asia, remains without reliable high-speed connectivity.
The crowding of earth’s orbit is a growing issue in a burgeoning satellite industry. Wyler was keen to address some of the challenges his company faces, not least because OneWeb’s satellites will use a non-geostationary orbit.
“Bridging the digital divide must include sustainable development. This means bridging the divide without harming space for future generations,” he said.
“We cannot overlap constellations in a way that would risk creating space debris, or endanger people on Earth by using less-expensive materials which do not degrade on re-entry. OneWeb has been focused on sustainable space development since the beginning.”
Helping rural areas keep up
Universal 5G services could unlock IoT developments across all industries and in all regions. However, the most significant impact in rural areas, often currently underserved in connectivity terms, is what IoT will do for smart farms.
As a tech enthusiast growing up in rural England, getting a reliable internet connection was a constant battle, and I’ve seen it frustrate the enterprise of my family’s farm – a business that is increasingly turning to automation, connected renewable energy sources and big data analytics.
According to Eric Lescourret, the Director of Strategic Marketing at AGCO Corporation, an agricultural equipment manufacturer, the scarcity of rural bandwidth is standing between American farmers and the next great breakthrough in agricultural productivity.
A 2016 report by the Federal Communications Commission, for example, revealed that 39 percent of rural Americans lack high-speed broadband internet access.
“That’s the dilemma, that our farmers out there are collecting more data for every seed they plant than they can process,” Lescourret says. “All of them are located in rural areas, and the broadband infrastructure is not keeping up.”
Big Data, important answers
Lescourret highlighted the problem at last week’s International Construction & Ultility Equipment Exposition in Louisville, Kentucky. He reasoned that American farmers are recording one kilobyte of data per year for every seed planted. With 450 million acres of corn in the United States, that means that farmers are capturing 14.4 million gigabytes of data related just to their corn crops every year.
The inability to effectively communicate and process this data is stunting the power of IoT to revolutionize agriculture in a world where food demand is rising sharply.
The dawn of satellite internet has offered a way to source higher speeds when traditional services aren’t available, but it is currently prohibitively expensive for most. With the introduction of a more advanced satellite constellation, deployed at scale, the technology can become more affordable. The days of rural dark-spots could be on their way out, and OneWeb is lighting the way.