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OneWeb on cusp of Japan launch with Softbank deal

Low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite operator OneWeb has bagged a distribution agreement with Japanese telco Softbank, one of its biggest shareholders.

Nick Wood

September 12, 2023

3 Min Read
OneWeb Satellite

Low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite operator OneWeb has bagged a distribution agreement with Japanese telco Softbank, one of its biggest shareholders.

In keeping with the vast majority of these types of deals, OneWeb’s constellation will provide a valuable in-fill solution for Softbank’s network in hard-to-reach places. It will also offer a vital back-up comms link in disaster-affected areas.

The agreement is in line with Sofbank’s Ubiquitous Network strategy, under which it is leveraging various non-terrestrial network (NTN) solutions – which includes geostationary earth orbit (GEO) satellites and high altitude platform stations (HAPS) as well as LEO satellites – to augment its network footprint. In so doing, Softbank aims to offer digital transformation services to a broader range of clientele.

In 2020, Softbank invested in Skylo, a US-based firm that specialises in delivering narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) services from satellites. Together with satellite operator Inmarsat, they are working on the GEO part of this strategy.

For the HAPS piece of the puzzle, Softbank has its own subsidiary, HAPSMobile, which has spent years developing autonomous flying cell sites. It was working closely with Google’s HAPS division, Loon, right up until Google pulled the plug in 2021. Last month, HAPSMobile carried out a successful test flight of a small, prototype version of its next-generation uncrewed aircraft system (UAS).

As for the LEO element, Softbank and OneWeb have been working together for years, so it came as something of surprise in July when Softbank became a reseller of OneWeb rival SpaceX’s Starlink Business service.

It was surprising not least because Softbank has been a OneWeb shareholder since the latter’s rescue from bankruptcy in late 2020, and subsequent further investment brought its stake up to 19.3 percent. In 2021, OneWeb took a step closer to launching in Japan, forming a partnership with Softbank in an effort to secure regulatory approval to build satellite ground stations there.

Now that OneWeb has completed the deployment of its first generation LEO constellation of 648 satellites, Softbank presumably feels the time is right to flip the switch on OneWeb becoming a fully operational part of its Ubiquitous Network.

“We are thrilled to continue our partnership with OneWeb, a pioneer in low Earth orbit satellite communications. This collaboration will offer customers high-speed, low-latency connectivity solutions in remote and in underserved areas in Japan. We look forward to working closely with OneWeb to provide exceptional service and expand the reach of our growing Ubiquitous Network throughout the region,” said Takenori Kobayashi, VP and head of product technology at SoftBank, in a statement.

As well as being on the verge of entering the Japanese market, OneWeb is also on the verge of being merged into GEO operator Eutelsat.

The all-share transaction cleared its final regulatory hurdles back in August, at which point Eutelsat announced a final shareholder vote on the deal will take place on 28 September. Last week, Eutelsat revealed that the combined operation will be led by Eutelsat’s CEO Eva Berneke and CFO Christophe Caudrelier. OneWeb CEO Neil Masterson will stay on until the end of the year to assist with the integration.

 

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About the Author(s)

Nick Wood

Nick is a freelancer who has covered the global telecoms industry for more than 15 years. Areas of expertise include operator strategies; M&As; and emerging technologies, among others. As a freelancer, Nick has contributed news and features for many well-known industry publications. Before that, he wrote daily news and regular features as deputy editor of Total Telecom. He has a first-class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster.

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