Is satellite broadband about to go mainstream?

The Eutelsat/OneWeb merger could bring satellite broadband to the masses – but it’s not without risks.

Friday, 27 October, 2023

Providing services by satellite has always been a risky and costly endeavour.

In the late 1980s, two satellite television companies were attempting to expand the UK’s broadcasting service beyond four core channels.

Unfortunately, both Sky and British Satellite Broadcasting were haemorrhaging vast sums of money on their fledgling services.

The inevitable result was a so-called merger that blended the two company names but exclusively used Sky’s Astra satellites, Amstrad dishes and receivers.

The rest is history.

A couple of weeks ago, the little-heralded Eutelsat/OneWeb merger may have heralded a second phase of consolidated satellite services – this time in the home broadband market.

We may finally be on the cusp of a cost-effective alternative to broadband piped through underground fibre cables being beamed from our increasingly congested skies

The sky’s the limit

The concept of satellite broadband isn’t new, and we’ve written about it in the past.

However, the Eutelsat/OneWeb merger promises to finally exploit the potential offered by broadband provision from space.

For one thing, it amalgamates two of Europe’s leading satellite operators, pooling their resources and supporting a triumvirate of satellite networks, each with different skillsets.

OneWeb has constructed a network of 634 low earth orbit (LEO) satellites 750 miles above the Earth’s surface, minimising the latency that’s historically hobbled satellite broadband.

The final touches are currently being added to its ground stations and wider infrastructure, in preparation for a global launch before Christmas.

However, OneWeb was struggling to fund the next stage of its plan – a fleet of 1,280 medium earth orbit (MEO) satellites capable of supporting 5G data while offering pinpoint positioning.

With funds at a premium, OneWeb has just agreed a merger with Eutelsat – already a key investor, while also running a fleet of larger geostationary (GEO) communication satellites.

Founded in 1977, the Paris-based European Telecommunications Satellite Organisation has 24 GEO satellites beaming a variety of broadband, data and video services around the world.

Some of these satellites have been up in space since the 1980s, while their 21,750-mile orbit results in high latency compared to OneWeb’s LEO satellites.

What does all this mean for me?

The Eutelsat/OneWeb merger means the UK finally has a comprehensive three-tier satellite network, capable of delivering everything from home broadband to GPS and 5G.

These economies of scale should ensure profitability, which in turn will allow OneWeb to provide ultrafast satellite broadband to consumers, dependably and affordably.

That might not be a huge deal if you’re reading this in a city centre new-build flat with gigabit broadband pre-cabled into your building.

It will be a far bigger deal if you’re reading this on an ADSL connection, in a remote community without fibre optic infrastructure nearby.

A cost-effective low-latency connection which minimises the historic drawbacks of satellite broadband could be a game-changer just like the arrival of satellite TV three decades ago.

It’s also important to note this is more than just a BSkyB-style takeover.

OneWeb’s infrastructure is a huge asset to Eutelsat, just as the latter’s GEO satellites will complement and support OneWeb’s LEO system (while funding future MEO launches).

The UK Government was forced to rescue OneWeb from bankruptcy back in 2020, and it retains the majority of voting rights.

That means the UK holds first-preference rights over manufacturing, launch and supply chain opportunities, with the ability to veto sales of services which might jeopardise national security.

You can therefore expect strong promotion for OneWeb’s services – and potentially strong uptake, too.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!