Six myths and the reality behind OneWeb’s low Earth orbit revolution  

By Ben Griffin, VP Mobility, OneWeb

Some people are wary of change. Some people embrace change, and some people champion change. The same is true for companies. How you react to change is often determined by whether you’re making that change happen, stand to gain from it, or are threatened by it.

I’ve been working in the inflight connectivity business for well over two decades now, and I have to say I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited about the future as I am today. This optimism and excitement are borne from the fact that I believe we are on the cusp of an in-flight connectivity revolution. A revolution that will mean airlines can invest in an in-flight connectivity service that delivers what they actually need, rather than simply what suppliers can deliver. A revolution that will finally fulfil the promise of a connected experience that is limited by the user’s imagination, rather than the available bandwidth.

In this scenario, OneWeb is the agent of change – bringing a fibre-like connectivity experience to the skies with our constellation of 648 low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. Standing to gain are the world’s airlines and business jet operators, who will finally be able to offer their passengers a home-equivalent and consistent broadband experience. And while we stand ready to work in a complementary way with legacy satellite connectivity providers to meet the aviation industry’s needs, some entrenched industry players, afraid of disruption, have unfortunately taken to propagating false claims about LEO technology.

It’s time to clear the air. I’d like to dispel some of myths that you may have heard involving OneWeb and our LEO constellation – and to explain in the clearest possible terms just what we can do for in-flight connectivity.

Myth #1 LEO constellations are unlikely to add much in terms of new capabilities. 

Let’s face it, the fact that technology exists to connect passengers to the internet while they’re travelling at 35,000 feet, at hundreds of kilometres an hour, in a metal tube is pretty incredible – and a testament to human ingenuity! When inflight ‘broadband’ Wi-Fi was first introduced in 2004, speeds were about 3Mbps. Of course, in some regions these speeds have improved, yet in others they really haven't. In lower latitudes in particular, connectivity remains poor to non-existent! There simply isn’t any robustness or consistency in IFC today. 

OneWeb’s LEO network will have a total usable capacity of over 1.1Tbps. Each of our 648 satellites will deliver an incredible 7.2 Gbps – delivering hundreds of Mbps to each aircraft.

This is a significant step up from the level of connectivity offered by many of today’s GEO-based IFC solutions, where usable bandwidth is often limited to a few megabits per second per aircraft.  Clearly the current solution isn’t delivering enough bandwidth to satisfy passenger demand. Just ask yourself when was the last time you heard a passenger talk about how great their connectivity experience was? With the capacity and bandwidth we will be able to deliver, OneWeb can connect each and every passenger - and all their devices without conflict or compromise.

Myth #2 Latency has little bearing on most passenger-facing connectivity applications. 

While data rates, speed and bandwidth have become the parameters by which connectivity is traditionally measured and judged, OneWeb will deliver something just as valuable, that no legacy IFC solution can promise – low latency. Latency is one of those things you rarely think about, until you suffer from the poor experience of high latency – which in layman’s terms means the frustration of lagging pages, applications not loading, buffering content, or sound that falls out of sync with the video you are watching. On the ground, this has been largely eradicated – thanks to fibre connectivity, 4G, and now 5G. In the air, it’s a different story. But OneWeb will change that.

It's only logical that a LEO satellite constellation 30 times closer to Earth will deliver faster round-trip time (RTT) speeds and therefore significantly lower latency to enable you to access your content in real-time. And this isn’t just theoretical. We have already demonstrated a latency of below 100ms across our network. GEO networks, by contrast, are restricted by the laws of physics to more than 600ms latency. It’s not hard to see why I am excited about the opportunities created by the latency we’ve already proven we can deliver. 

This revolution in in-air latency capabilities is coming just in time. People rely more than ever on cloud-based and streaming applications and a whole range of video-conferencing and VOIP calling solutions, for work and for play. OneWeb will unlock the potential to bring to the skies the at-home connectivity experience that people have come to expect.

The applications for passengers, crew and airline operations are virtually endless. Online gaming, cloud-based enterprise applications, seamless 4K content streaming, HD telemedicine video patient consultations — not to mention a raft of Electronic Flight Bag and IOT applications that flight crew will be able to access with confidence – all become possible. OneWeb’s ability to deliver low latency really will enable a connectivity experience that exceeds customer expectations and delivers a competitive edge to airlines.   

Myth #3 Current GEO technologies already meet the connectivity needs of the aviation sector

Clearly this is not the case. Just ask Norm Haughton, Air Canada’s director of In-Flight Digital Entertainment and Wi-Fi who said that “the minute LEO comes available as a technology for us to utilize, we will jump on that course”.  
One of the key gaps in the GEO offering is an inability to offer seamless global coverage – a particular issue for carriers such as Air Canada, Emirates, Singapore Airlines and others who frequently fly in both lower latitudes and across the polar regions. At present, Geostationary satellites are unable to provide connectivity over the vital polar routes. No wonder the in-flight connectivity currently experienced by passengers isn’t worth writing home about – or texting home about – even if you could! 

And LEO constellations, despite some claims to the contrary, don’t have to be gargantuan to deliver truly global service. At OneWeb, we will deliver precisely this level of coverage with 648 satellites arranged in 12 planes encircling the globe — a considerably more agile, efficient, and responsible fleet than those that some other LEO networks have planned. Each of our satellites uses a set of 16 beams to cover an area the size of Alaska – some 1.718 million km². Then with our network of ground-based portals, we can deliver coverage to aircraft flying over even the remotest locations. Furthermore, our constellation design converges at the North Pole – delivering even more capacity in this key — and as yet wholly unserved — region. 

Myth #4 – OneWeb can’t connect you when you’re flying over the oceans  

While we’re on the subject of coverage, I’d like to dispel another myth – that OneWeb can’t deliver connectivity over water. It’s just not true, full stop. We’ll connect aircraft flying over every continent, every ocean, every desert – across the full length and breadth of our beautiful planet. The same mathematical principles that allow us to connect aircraft across the polar routes mean we can also deliver seamless, consistent connectivity across the widest oceans. But don’t just take my word for it; our maritime services easily put the lie to this myth!

Myth #5 – LEO antennas will be larger, heavier and more expensive compared to GEO equipment

Remember those maths problems at school about the two trains? You’d have the one traveling at, say, 50mph and another, setting out three hours later, traveling at 65mph; you had to work out how long it would take the faster train to overtake the train that had the head start. I always think back to those questions what’s happening with GEO providers and the LEO possibilities bearing down on them. GEO satellites have been stuck up in space (36,000km from Earth) for about a decade, far away from the fast-moving train of progress. The antennas that GEO satellites are programmed to work with are, with respect, old, heavy, and — because they are mechanically steered – unreliable. And because GEO satellites need to have a much longer shelf life because of the expense of building and launching them, they remain reliant on dated technology.  

OneWeb is the fast-moving train of progress. Together with our world class partners such as Stellar Blu Solutions (formerly GDC Advanced Technology), we’re developing electronically steered antennas. These next-generation antennas will be sleeker, lighter, more advanced and, as they have no moving parts, highly reliable. What’s more, our antennas are being developed to work with both LEO and GEO satellites! One of the more curious aspects of certain GEO players’ hostility to LEO is that there’s room for both technologies.

And if you thought size mattered – it doesn’t! We are building antennas to fit almost all commercial and business aviation platforms, from super jumbos to super light jets. From the A350 and B787 to the Pilatus PC-24, we will connect all aircraft – regardless of size. This will bring fibre-like connectivity to platforms that are incapable of carrying bulky GEO hardware, such as regional airlines, charter operators and special-mission aircraft such as medevac and air ambulances.  

Myth #6 – LEO constellations will damage the near-Earth space environment   

OneWeb has been committed to responsible design and operations from its beginnings. At OneWeb, we believe space is a global, shared, natural resource and it is up to all of us to protect it. We are committed to Responsible Space, a term we use to describe the practices we employ to drive sustainability within the space industry, avoiding harming our lower Earth orbit (LEO) environment, and the night sky above. To find out more, visit our page that talks all about it

Change is coming, and change is good. OneWeb is building a network in space to finally deliver the promise of in-flight connectivity. Join us on this journey – connect with us today to find out more. 

About the author 

Ben Griffin has more than 20 years’ experience in IFC, with notable contributions to companies such as ARINC, AeroMobile, Inmarsat, and currently OneWeb. Ben’s career in IFC has developed alongside the fast-paced change from narrow band to true broadband connectivity.  Now at OneWeb, Ben is responsible for delivering fibre-like connectivity solutions to aviation customers in all parts of the aircraft, passengers and crew alike. Ben brings a wealth of experience from the IFC service provision perspective, including significant satellite provider insight spanning both GEO and LEO technologies.