BT confirms talks with OneWeb over rural broadband coverage

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Source: Rural Services Network – 28 June 201

BT and OneWeb have finally confirmed a report in Capacity in March that they are exploring using the satellite network for rural coverage in the UK.

The two companies announced yesterday that they have signed a memorandum of understanding to explore the provision of improved digital communication services to some of the hardest-to-reach parts of the UK.

This is an exploration, not an agreement, said the CEOs of the two companies, though OneWeb CEO Neil Masterson was more positive about the outcome.

“This partnership is a huge sign of progress in the resilience and advancement of the overall telecom infrastructure in the UK,” said Masterson.

“OneWeb’s network will be a vital means for bridging the last digital divides across the network and we are excited to be part of the solution with BT to expand the nation’s digital infrastructure.”

BT CEO Philip Jansen was more cautious: “Our ambitious full fibre and mobile commitments have put BT at the forefront of efforts to expand digital connectivity across the UK,” he said.

“It is clear that greater partnership is needed, both with Government and within industry, to ensure connectivity can reach every last corner of the country. Our agreement with OneWeb is an important step to understanding how that goal could be achieved in the future.”

But the cautious statement — at least from BT — comes months after Sunil Bharti Mittal, executive chairman of OneWeb, told Capacity in an interview that OneWeb “will be able to help operators meet their rural coverage obligations”.

He told us in the interview published in March that he was “already talking to BT and Vodafone in the UK”. However, both BT and Vodafone initially expressed surprise when Capacity checked with them at the time.

But it was true, at least as far as BT is concerned. It and OneWeb said: “The ground-breaking agreement between OneWeb and BT comes as investment in expanding modern, digital infrastructure remains a top priority for the UK’s economic recovery and development post-Covid.”

Capacity has asked Vodafone again whether Mittal’s March statement was correct about conversations between it and OneWeb.

The BT/OneWeb announcement said they “will consider opportunities to deliver OneWeb’s connectivity services from low Earth orbit to businesses and communities around the UK, as well as identifying collaboration opportunities to develop new services beyond UK’s shores for BT’s global customers”.

The news comes just days before OneWeb’s next launch, scheduled for Thursday, when French company Arianespace will launch 36 more satellites, marking the end of its first phase.

This week’s launch, if successful, will mean the company can cover everywhere between 50° north latitude and the North Pole, so that it will be able to offer services across the UK, Alaska, northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, the Arctic and Canada.

For this week’s launch, the Russian-built Soyuz rocket has been labelled with the slogan “Hello North Pole!” (pictured), to show OneWeb’s Arctic aspirations.

The nearest town in the UK to the North Pole is Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Islands, which is at 60° latitude — 30° from the pole.

Commercial service in the area is expected to begin later in the year, depending on the availability of terminals. Global service is likely in mid or late 2022.

Neither OneWeb nor BT has yet hinted at prices. This is vital, as Onur Karabey, CEO of German antenna maker Alcan Systems, said this morning. “It is vital that the satellite industry starts to think with consumers in mind. Higher capacity at lower costs is no longer a wish list item — it is the basic expectation.”