Broadband for everyone - interview with OneWeb's VP, Tony Azzarelli

Bringing fast internet speed to every corner of globe might sound like a pipe dream, but one project is about to attempt just that. Justin Cunningham asks OneWeb’s VP of regulatory affairs how it can be done.

They say knowledge is power. And for most of us, humankinds' amassed knowledge is accessible at the touch of a button. Any question can be answered, simply by ‘Googling it’.

However, it’s estimated over half of world’s population doesn’t have broadband speed connectivity, something enjoyed by the majority of the UK’s population. Despite this, slow unreliable connections are a common complaint here at home.

The questions is, with so many services reliant on an internet connection, being online has become a preoccupation. As smart as modern phones are, without data they revert to simply being just that, a phone. And who wants that?

Indeed, the concept of the Internet of Things is fast gaining momentum, but it’s an idea that will only work if issues around connectivity are solved. After all, how can your fridge get in touch to tell you to pick up some milk, if you have no reception?

It’s this fundamental desire, to provide broadband speed internet connection to every location on Earth that’s seen the formation of OneWeb.

“We want to provide affordable broadband speed connectivity to everywhere, and everyone,” said Tony Azzarelli, VP of regulatory affairs at OneWeb. “We see even connected countries under served as the goal post is always changing. A few years ago we needed to connect with people at 2Mb/s, then 10, then 24, now 36Mb/s. The more you change it, the more people become unconnected or underserved.”

It’s a bold mission statement and stands to bring the internet to billions of people around the globe. OneWeb has already managed to forge a number of partners with impressive names that include Airbus, Virgin, Qualcomm and Intelsat. The premise is similar to the existing network of GPS satellites, but instead of providing global positioning information, OneWeb wants to provide blanket high speed internet coverage.

“This will connect people, homes, schools, hospitals and businesses,” said Azzarelli. “We don’t think we are going to be competitive in cities, for example, where access to broadband internet is already cheap and fast. But, in rural areas we will be cost competitive. We will provide 50Mb/s download speeds, upload speeds up to 25Mb/s, and critically low latency speed around 50ms.”

Traditionally broadband has been achieved by digging trenches and laying fibre optic cables, at an average cost of $4,000 a km. However, key to this project is the deployment of a network of satellites. This is the ambitious part, “OneWeb will deploy a mega-constellation of satellites by 2020,” he explained. To clarify, this equates to launching 648 satellites over the next four years.

Mass produced satellites

The satellites will be around 1m3, and are to be engineered for simplicity – using fewer parts to make manufacture easier and low mass, around 150kg, to make launches cheaper. It’s an interesting approach and is the best attempt to date to bring high volume production techniques to the space market.

“We are trying to redefine satellite manufacturing,” said Azzarelli. “We are to mass produce the satellites, reducing costs and improving the schedules. Each satellite will cost less than a $1million. That’s quite a disruptive feature to this market.”

The factory in Toulouse has already been put in place to initially build the first production satellites. However, the huge barrier is getting them in to space. Is there this much capacity available for space access over the next four years?

“We are going to be deploying Soyuz Rockets from French Gianna, Baikonur, and another facility in Russia,” said Azzarelli. “Each of those Soyuz rockets can fit as many as 32 spacecraft, which will be deployed over a period of 18 months. In addition to that is Virgin Galactic with their rocket and aeroplanes, which will be able to inject to orbit one satellite at a time. We have 59 Virgin Galactic Rockets and 21 Soyuz rockets available in the current contract, so the capacity is there.”

The volume of data depends on the plan people or a premises sign up to, but this can vary from 10 to 150+ GB per month of data. One of the important features for the user is the signal will come no more than 50° to 60° from the horizontal, because of the polar orbit, meaning buildings or mountain that can normally obstruct coverage, will no longer be a barrier.

OneWeb is not without its own ground infrastructure requirement, however. The idea is principally about connecting consumer equipment to the satellite constellation, “through a series of user terminals that are installed on premise or on moving platforms like trains, ships or aircraft,” said Azzarelli. “The satellites are very simple, it is the user terminals that’s worked out to be the toughest challenge. The technical challenge is on the ground rather than in space.”

The user terminals use OneWeb’s patent-pending technology to provide high-speed connectivity to surrounding devices with no change in latency during satellite handovers. The terminals can be self-installed, are small, affordable and so efficient they can operate with optional solar panels, battery packs, and provide WiFi/LTE/3G and 2G radios to provide coverage directly to cell phones, tablets and laptops.

“OneWeb can address the most demanding global connectivity challenges and sudden infrastructure crises,” said Azzareli. “Those affected by hurricanes, earthquakes and refugee situations are often abruptly without infrastructure — OneWeb will bridge these gaps providing instantly deployable connectivity or long-term access solutions.”

OneWeb said it will act as an extension to existing networks and not a replacement. Its system is designed to extend current networks into rural areas and create affordable connectivity for all. Internet access isn’t just about becoming addicted to social media, absorbed by memes, or wasting time watching vines. It can and has change commerce, healthcare and education – and this is an opportunity OneWeb is keen to offer to everyone.

CV: Tony Azzarelli

Tony Azzarelli serves as OneWeb’s vice president of regulatory affairs where he is responsible for world-wide market access and licensing, policy changes and spectrum activities. Prior to joining OneWeb, he was head of space and science services at Ofcom, he also held senior regulatory positions with Inmarsat, The Boeing Company and the European Space Agency.

He has an MSc in Electronic Engineering specialising in Telecommunications and Computer Science from the Polytechnic of Turin (Italy), and is a fellow and chartered engineer at the UK Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET), and a Board Member of the UK Charter of the Society of Satellite Professionals International (SSPI).