OneWeb satellites under assembly. Click to enlarge. Credit: Arianespace
Russia's love-hate relationship with OneWeb
With the launch of the OneWeb constellation, the Russian rocket industry stands to earn millions, but the Kremlin is terrified at the prospect of unhindered access to the Internet by its citizens.
Illustration of the OneWeb constellation architecture.
What is OneWeb?
According to the London-based OneWeb company, its satellite network was designed to provide high-speed, no-delay Internet anywhere on Earth, focusing on previously under-served fields, including aviation and maritime industries. The relatively low cost of the service promised to bring online for the first time many regions and institutions, including schools and remote towns, which often do not have more traditional Internet access, such as cable or DSL. Customers would be able to use 3G, LTE, 5G and WiFi terminals to connect to the Internet via its satellites, OneWeb said.
OneWeb's initial operational satellite network was expected to include around 648 satellites deployed in a circular orbit around 1,200 kilometers above the Earth's surface. The spacecraft will be distributed over 18 orbital planes with 36 satellites in each plane. If global demand for its services grows, the constellation will be increased to more than 900 first-generation satellites working simultaneously, according to OneWeb. The company's founder Greg Wyler wrote that in its 2012 frequency filing, OneWeb had requested an option for a total of 1,980 satellites with 55 satellites per each orbital plane. That number in the constellation could be reached with the second-generation satellites.
OneWeb satellites were developed by a European consortium Airbus Defense and Space, which entered into a joint venture with OneWeb in April 2016. The Russian OKB Fakel design bureau also served as a major sub-contractor in the project, providing the satellite's electric propulsion system.
The US-based Hughes company worked on a network of 50 initial ground stations for the OneWeb system and the company also invested into the project in June 2015.
In addition to Airbus and Hughes, other investors included Bharti, Virgin Group, SoftBank, Qualcomm and Coca Cola. In total, OneWeb said it had raised $1.7 billion for the project.
The assembly of initial OneWeb satellites was conducted at Airbus facility in Toulouse, France, but another plant in Florida, USA, was built for their mass production.
As of 2019, the demonstrations of OneWeb's service were expected to begin in 2020, followed by the start of the full service in 2021.
Known specifications of the OneWeb constellation:
Boost to Russian launch business
In June 2015, OneWeb booked 21 Soyuz launches through Arianespace for the first phase in the deployment of the 672-satellite constellation extending until 2020. (Another 39 deliveries were planned on the aircraft-deployed Launcher-One rocket built by Virgin Galactic, whose parent company Virgin Group invested into the project.)
RKTs Progress, the developer of the Soyuz rocket, said that Russia had received a one-billion dollar down payment for the deployment of the system. Such a massive launch contract became a lifeline for Russia's beleaguered space industry, as other customers spooked by multiple failures and sky-rocketing insurance rates for the workhorse Proton rocket had fled to competitors.
In addition to 21 orders for Soyuz rockets, Russian officials negotiated an option with OneWeb to order from three to 11 Proton rockets to launch additional OneWeb satellites, but that deal, which was estimated from $300 to $800 million, had not materialized so far, leaving Proton's commercial future in limbo.
To avoid bottlenecks in the unprecedented launch campaign, Roskosmos planned to fire its Soyuz rockets from all three available civilian launch sites -- Kourou, Baikonur and Vostochny. Thus, it would be the first significant use of the Soyuz launch pad in Vostochny, which had so far hosted just four missions since its inception in 2016.
By the beginning of 2019, Roskosmos hoped to launch four OneWeb missions from Baikonur in 2019 and eight in 2020. At least five launches were expected from Vostochny, however at the end of 2018, RIA Novosti reported that despite a Russian proposal to shift two OneWeb missions from Baikonur to Vostochny in 2019, Arianespace refused citing logistical problems.
A threat to Kremlin?
As the OneWeb project was picking up steam (in large part thanks to Russian rocket power), it dawned on the Kremlin what the easy, low-cost unfiltered access to the Internet could mean for Russia itself, particularly for its vast neglected territories away from central authorities and from the tight informational control. Suddenly, the launches of civilian OneWeb satellites looked even more controversial than various military and dual-use Western missions, which had previously rode into space with the help of Russian rockets or Russian-built rocket engines.
Ironically, the unprecedented ease and freedom of access to uncensored Internet by Russian citizens via the OneWeb network apparently scared the Kremlin much more than all Western spy satellites.
The issue was reportedly discussed several times at the highest level of the Russian government, including at the security council meetings chaired by Vladimir Putin, but apparently remained unresolved. The Russian security services and communications officials opposed any cooperation, while Roskosmos and at least some officials within the presidential administration reportedly lobbied for some kind of compromise. (853)
On Jan. 29, 2016, the State Committee for Radio Frequencies, GKRCh, allocated frequencies practically matching the range to be used by the customers of the OneWeb system to the operator of the obsolete Gonets satellite network. Officially, this frequency range was dedicated to the non-existent Gonets-WEB project, which envisioned the 12-spacecraft network of low-orbital satellites and four ground stations.
In reality, the move clearly aimed to provide a legitimate excuse for blocking the operation of the OneWeb system in Russia. (854)
Apparently understanding its precarious position in Russia, OneWeb tried to conform, like many Western businesses operating in totalitarian countries before it.
In 2017, OneWeb entered a joint venture with the Gonets company, which initially took 40-percent stake in it. According to the plan, the newly formed OOO OneWeb was expected to sell the company's services inside Russia in compliance with Russian law.
In July 2017, OOO OneWeb/Gonets re-applied for a frequency range to GKRCh, but despite several hearings, the issue had stalled, Dmitry Bakanov, the Director General of the Gonets system and OOO OneWeb, told the Kommersant newspaper. (855) Bakanov also described an array of other issues, which made the future of the OneWeb in Russia looking extremely murky.
In addition to obstacles at GKRCh, the Russian legislature was also apparently considering various measures to essentially ban the use of the OneWeb system in Russia in a slow-moving wider effort to control the Internet, probably emulating the Chinese model.
In the fall of 2018, the Russian security services went ahead with a public assault against OneWeb. In their usual tradition, they accused the company's network to be a potential spy tool.
"The guarantee that the (OneWeb) system does not have spycapabilities and would not be able to inflict personal and societal harm in Russia has a declarative nature and can not be reliably verified by the Russian side," a representative of the FSB security agency Vladimir Sadovnikov was quoted as saying. Sadovnikov also expressed concern that OneWeb could become a monopoly in remote Russian regions, where it could be more convenient and cheaper than other (government-controlled) channels of communication.
The security services apparently proposed to restrict or completely block OneWeb operations on the Russian territory and even deny the company access to Russian rockets.
Ironically, it was Russian nationalist Dmitry Rogozin, then in charge of Roskosmos, who found himself defending the contract for the launch of OneWeb satellites on Russian rockets.
The proponents of the system in Russia, including Roskosmos, warned that Moscow would be shooting itself in the foot, by denying itself millions of dollars in revenues and further damaging its international reputation as a reliable launch service provider, while also letting its Western competitors to take over that lucrative business.
Moreover, banning the network in Russia might still not prevent its wide-spread illegal use. OneWeb's ground stations in Kazakhstan, Italy, Norway and the United States could still be effective on the Russian territory even without Moscow's permits, Bakanov said. (855) (Under normal circumstances, from four to six ground stations were to be spread across the Russian territory to support the OneWeb network).
Looking for a compromise?
All things considered, the Russian government apparently tried to have its cake and eat it too, by finding the way for allowing OneWeb into Russia, but somehow controlling and restricting its operations in the country. (853)
As the first preemptive measure, the Russian government urgently bought a majority stake in the OOO OneWeb venture by increasing its share in the company to 51 percent.
In December 2018, OneWeb also issued a press-release denying reports that it had offered to sell a stake in the main company to the Russian government. However, the company admitted that it was in the process of restructuring its joint venture with the Gonets "to comply with certain regulatory requirements in Russia." Earlier, the Reuters news agency reported that OneWeb had offered Moscow to buy a 12.5 percent stake in the company in exchange for approving its application for a frequency range inside Russia.
In the Feb. 25, 2019, interview with the Kommersant newspaper, (which was promptly re-published by Roskosmos), Dmitry Bakanov said that OOO OneWeb had fully cooperated with the country's security services in providing necessary information for the analysis of "risks and threats" posed by the OneWeb network in Russia. Bakanov was also quoted as saying that Gonets' (foreign) "partners also express open position."
Industry sources also said that just several days earlier, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had signed a document requiring an approval on the use of OneWeb signals with the FSB security agency and with the Federal Protective Service, FSO. Medvedev also reportedly decreed the creation of ground stations in Russia, apparently capable of controlling OneWeb satellites and blocking their operations. At that point, the "controlling" functions were expected to be limited to signals over the Russian territory, but, the Russian regulations regarding the OneWeb network were still in the works, sources said.
Launches of the OneWeb satellites: