US: OneWeb has received unanimous approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to move forward with its plans to deliver high-speed internet to hard to reach places in the United States. Backed by leaders from Qualcomm, Airbus and business tycoon Richard Branson, OneWeb plans to launch a constellation of as many as 720 satellites into low Earth orbit in order to beam internet to anywhere on Earth at speeds that rival that of fiber connections.
The goal is to provide internet to hard-to-reach rural areas with low rates of internet connectivity, ideally bridging the digital divide. OneWeb has set out an ambitious target for connecting “every connected school” in the world to the internet by 2022.
Satellite internet exists today but it’s had a bad reputation so far, because the companies that sell it use satellites that are located in geostationary orbit, which means the satellite is located high above the Earth’s equator and follows the planet’s rotation. Sending the signal over 22,000 miles back and forth from Earth results in slow speeds.
OneWeb, on the other hand, wants to launch satellites into low-earth orbit, which is just 1,250 miles above the Earth. The company says this will result in much faster speeds. The company says it plans to begin production of 10 initial satellites in 2018 and will begin providing broadband internet service by 2019.
OneWeb is not the only company planning to build a fleet of low-earth orbit internet satellites. SpaceX’s Elon Musk, too, announced his intention to build and begin launching a similar product by 2019.
There are still a few obstacles standing in the way of both companies. For OneWeb, the FCC approval is conditional upon the agency updating rules on fixed satellites and an item on spectrum sharing, as the telecom news site Multichannel reports. And neither company has committed to firm launch dates for its initial satellites. But given today’s FCC approval, it seems OneWeb is in the lead right now in the race to offer ultra-fast, low-cost satellite internet.