Sat Firm OneWeb Files for Bankruptcy

Relax, this is not the Corona Virus – Rather it is OneWeb’s satellite constellation

OneWeb filed for bankruptcy in New York on March 27. OneWeb is one of the biggest names in the Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite business, planning to provide high speed internet to the world by 2021. The news came just days after they successfully launched another 34 satellites into their constellation, bringing the total number up to 74. Now, the future of the constellation is uncertain.


In its news release, OneWeb said it intends to use the bankruptcy proceedings to pursue a sale in order to maximize the value of the company. The company said that it had recently been engaged in “advanced negotiations” to fund the company through the deployment and commercial launch of its constellation, but these negotiations fell through because of the financial and market impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.


The main investors are Softbank Group with 37.41 % equity, followed by Qualcomm with 15.93 %. Other investors include Grupo Salinas and the Government of Rwanda. Softbank is also the major creditor to OneWeb so it has access to all the assets as the senior lender. Perhaps after Chapter 11 OneWeb may be gone but a new “SoftbankWeb” may emerge. Or potential buyers like Amazon or Facebook could emerge. Aside from the satellites and earth stations, OneWeb owns the right to valuable spectrum which could speed up competitors plans. Space Norway and Telesat have LEO plans and thus may be interested buyers.


In the LEO space OneWeb was competing with Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink venture and Jeff Bezos’s Project Kuiper. A previous LEO competitor LEOSat failed in Nov, 2019. Does the bankruptcy of OneWeb mean that these LEO constellation dreams are also doomed ? Billionaires like Musk and Bezos have a lot of money and resources but they still need to raise financing. This combined with the pressure of the COVID19 pandemic on markets could dry up VC and debt financing, especially for something as speculative as LEO constellations. This may be the death knell for all these LEO plans.


I remember when earlier global LEO dreams also failed like Teledesic , Celestri and Globalstar. OneWeb, and the constellations like it, are built similar to a model called Skybridge proposed around the same time as the Iridium constellation was launched over twenty years ago (see my book review here). The idea is to be able to connect the 3.5 billion of people on Earth that aren’t currently online. LEO still have not solved the issue of making low-cost ground terminals that could work in harsh environments like the Arctic and rain-forest jungles with low power requirements that can track moving satellites. IT is doubtful that there is enough revenue in those business models to support the projects. Targeted High throughput GEO satellites can target high population density areas that can provide revenue for satellite Internet much cheaper than LEO’s and use existing relatively inexpensive ground terminal equipment. Serving remote locations has tough economics, even for satellites.


Already there were concerns about the volumes of proposed satellites and their potential for collisions and increases in space debris. Without strict regulatory oversight (and who would be responsible for this in space ?) and the non-zero chance of failures and malfunctions, we could see a runaway feedback loop creating tons of space debris, called the Kessler syndrome. These concerns and liabilities have still not been fully addressed for the large volume LEO constellations.

OneWeb satellite


What does this mean for the Canadian market, specifically broadband service in remote ares and the Arctic ?


OneWeb had been planning to roll out Arctic service first, later this year. They had Canadian spectrum licenses from ISED. Telesat hasn’t even begun construction of their proposed satellites yet, although they have received approval of their spectrum and have the support of the Federal government ($85M from the Strategic Innovation Fund). SpaceX has launched 300 Starlink satellites and is expected to launch another 600 this year. They claim to need 800 satellites in orbit to be able to begin offering broadband Internet. It is unknown whether SpaceX has licensed spectrum from ISED to offer service in Canada. Starlink’s mission is also different from OneWeb one and they may be looking at serving the USA first and concentrating on revenue from there. So nothing imminent.


It is a market segment that I will keep a close eye on. Sadly, I don’t think that LEO satellite provision of broadband Internet to the Arctic and remote Canadian regions is going to happen anytime soon demonstrated by this recent bankruptcy. Fingers crossed that I am wrong.

Exploring Canada’s North


I apologize for the lack of posts recently. Summer vacation and back to school and other events took my focus away from blogging. Now I am ready to dive back into it with renewed vim and vigour !

This year for our family vacation we decided to go North, really North. To the Spectacular Northwest Territories.

So in late August we packed our carry-ons and hopped on an early morning plane from Pearson (we were originally booked on a flight from Waterloo Airport but it was cancelled by WestJet) to Calgary and from there to Yellowknife. One note, at Calgary when we changed planes, on the tarmac you could smell the smoke and see the haze on the horizon from the forest fires. I hope those are all extinguished now. Very sobering to see.

Yellowknife was delightful. As soon as you enter the cosy airport you know you are in the North as you are greeted by a huge statue of a polar bear on the ice, chasing some seals. There are furs and antler prominantly displayed. And very down home, friendly people.

We stayed at an AirBNB condo right on Great Slave Lake that was maybe a seven minute drive from the airport. It was in Old Town, where some of the orginal cabins and shacks are still standing. A lot of things were in easy walking distance; great food at places like the Dancing Moose Cafe, Bullock’s Bistro, The Wildcat Cafe and the North’s only brewpub, the Woodyard Brewhouse where we also got a growler to bring back to our condo. A few streets away was the famous Ragged Ass Road; you can buy replicas of the street sign so please dont steal the real ones !

One of the highlights of that area is the Bush Pilots Monument. It is a local monument honouring the bush pilots of today and yesterday, who helped open up the North to the rest of Canada.The monument sits on top of “The Rock”, a six story rock hill in the centre of Old Town. Once you climb up the hundreds of steps, the view from there is fabulous. And you will usually see a float plane or two or three taking off or landing on Great Slave Lake.

We ventured into downtown a few times (including great meals at Coyote’s Bistro on Franklin, thanks again to the owner Ed But and his staff for taking great care of us) to get groceries and supplies for the room and also to explore. We were able to find the school that my wife attended as well as the house they lived in when they were stationed there. It struck me that there were only six traffic lights in total in the town, and at night they all just flashed yellow !

My youngest daughter is a geophysicist working exploration in the North so she flew in from Whitehosre to spend a day with us and show us around too. Her crew bunkhouse was only a few minutes walk from where we were staying. She brought us to Weaver and Devore,a trading post cum outfitters that has been there since 1936 where you can get true outdoor clothing and gear for working in the North. It was great to see the places she had told us about previously including the colourful houses and the houseboats on the lake.

We also did a lot of outdoor adventuring including some kayaking on the lake (trying to avoid a bush plane !) and drove out about 45 km on the Ingraham Trail to Hidden Lake Territorial Park. There we took about a half-hour hike to Cameron Falls (see the picture at the top of this post). We spent a lot of time exploring the falls, and then crossing over a foot-bridge upstream to the other side to explore there too. A lot of the scenery reminded me of Northern Ontario where I grew up. The old rocks of the Canadian Shield and the bush. The trees up in Yellowknife were much smaller though.

A week in Yellowknife is good for the soul. The pace is slower, the air is cleaner. There is no visual pollution from billboards. The locals are laid back and friendly. Late August was a little early to see the aurora borealis (I LOVE that name !) but if you went later in the fall, or definitely during the winter, the light show would be awe inspiring. I highly recommend making the trip North, especially if you are a fan of the outdoors.

Lastly, I promised I would review telecom. I had no problem getting a strong cellphone signal everywhere I went, including out on the Ingraham Trail. It wasnt always LTE, but the 3G was fine. Our AirBNB had satellite TV and great high speed WiFi internet. We did not stream any movies or Netflix (I brought some downloaded movies on my computer for family entertainment at night) rather than abuse my hosts data plan.

Finally, a big thanks to Curtis Shaw, the President of Northwestel, who I met at this year’s Canadian Telecom Summit who gave me some great tips and restaurant recommendations !

What’s NEXT for Iridium satellite system ?


On July 25, 2018, a Space-X Falcon 9 rocket will launch the seventh Iridium NEXT mission. This second-to-last launch will increase the total number of Iridium NEXT satellites in space to 65. The final launch will will deliver the last 10 satellites for a total of 75 satellites in orbit. In total 81 satellites comprise Iridium NEXT with 66 in the operational constellation (six polar orbiting planes, each made up of 11 birds), nine serving as orbital spares and six as on earth ground spares. This constellation will completely cover the entire planet with reliable satellite connectivity and will replace the original Iridium network that was deployed in the late 1990’s by Motorola.

The Iridium network has always been the go-to choice for connectivity anywhere in the world. It’s story is a fascinating one (see my book review at http://www.amitel.com/trenchs/ ) and it has survived and flourished because its users love it. The phone works anywhere on the globe, including the Arctic and Antarctic regions and has thus made it a favourite of first responders, scientists, adventurers, journalists, explorers, the military and spies.

The technology upgrade that Iridium NEXT provides will allow for a new global broadband service beyond the current telephony and low speed data service. More bandwidth with higher throughput and faster speeds will support a host of new broadband services and devices across oceans, airways and the polar regions. Crucially , it will also be backwards compatible with current devices, in fact will provide improved performance and reliability to devices such as the Iridium 9555 phone and the Iridium Extreme.

So , while others such as Elon Musk (Space-x) and Jeff Bezos (Open Web) plan on launching constellations of satellites to provide a global broadband service, the Iridium system has already done it and is building upon an established user base that values the service and the connectivity it provides anywhere on the planet.

Do I need a Satphone ?


These days almost everyone in Canada has a smartphone. It seems that we can’t live our lives without one. But what do we do when we are out of range of a cell-tower signal ? How do we remain connected and not panic when we have zero bars on our phone and there is no WiFi available ? That is when a satphone becomes essential.

Satellite phones (Satphones) have been around for over two decades, since the early constellations like Iridium were put into orbit in the late 1990’s. Some people think that satphones are only for large corporations, the government or mountain climbing expeditions but that is not true. There are many important reasons for ordinary Canadians to have quick and efficient access to reliable communications. Here is why you should have communications anytime, anywhere.

First, and most importantly, satellite communications are critical during and after natural disasters. Canada is not immune to severe weather and emergencies that can knock infrastructure like cell towers out of commission. We have seen this with the ice storms in Quebec , fires such as the one in Fort McMurray, the floods in Calgary and Winnipeg, extensive power outages in Ontario, avalanches and tornados. During a disaster, often the only communications network that remains working is the satellite one and it is vital for relief work, search and rescue and letting loved ones know your status.

Additionally, satellite phones can be an important lifeline during recreational activities. We Canadians love our great outdoors and we revel in activities like back country skiing, hiking, sailing, mountain biking, and hunting. We know that adventurers trying to break world records in remote areas of the world such as Mount Everest or in the Antarctic or Arctic carry satphones. They are just as useful in Northern Ontario, or the Rocky Mountains or even at the cottage where you’re out of range of a cell signal.

What about your job site ? Many Canadians still work in resource extraction industries, whether it is mining, forestry or oil and gas. Staying connected via a satphone is essential to some industries, especially when driving down some remote highways where there are no gas stations or other traffic for long stretches.

So what kind of satphones are there ? The traditional ones like Inmarsat are based one geo-synchronous orbits (ie they look stationary from earth) and some (like Thureya) don’t cover North America. The GEO ones have a long delay as the signal has to travel up 22,236 miles to the bird and then back down. There is one network, Iridium, that covers the entire globe using LEO (low Earth orbit) satellites that have almost no delay and that is well suited for providing service in Canada. They have many solutions depending on how you want to stay connected using satellite communications. Two of the most popular are a standalone handheld satellite phone, or alternatively turning your own existing smartphone into a satellite phone.

The Iridium 9555 and Iridium Extreme are two of the most popular Iridium handheld products. Both phones feature up to 30 hours of standby and four hours of talk time, in a small and very durable structure. Through talk and text, the Iridium 9555 and Iridium Extreme can save lives. The Iridium Extreme also has e-mail messaging capability, Google Mapping services, and GPS-enabled location-based services.

Iridium GO! is the innovative product which transforms your smartphone into a satellite phone anywhere in the world. Compatible with Apple and Android, Iridium GO! extends the use of your smartphone and devices. The Iridium GO! app extends your connection, optimizing you for voice, SMS, e-mail, 100-foot radius of WiFi for up to five devices, weather monitoring and more.

Whether you are making a disaster prep plan, heading our on a wilderness trip, or like the ease-of-mind of being accessible during your adventures, having the right resources in place for any situation is crucial. That is why a satphone can be essential to living an active life outdoors in Canada.

Mother’s Day

There is a great anecdote in the book “Eccentric Orbits – The Iridium Story” that I reviewed in a previous post.

It was May 9, 2004. The technicians at the Network Operating Centres for the Iridium satellite system in Hawaii and Arizona noticed a high level of dropped calls (more precisely failure to connect) and a very high level of traffic in general. They were confused because everything seemed to be working normal, and the system could hand almost 100,000 calls at a time and there were barely 140,000 handsets in service at the time.

Then they noticed that all the calls were coming from one particular place, massive numbers of people were all trying to call over the same satellite. That is what was taxing the system, a specific geographic overload. You see, there were 146,000 American troops stationed in Iraq at the time. And that year, May 9 was Mother’s Day.

The only situation that could max out the Iridium system was Mother’s Day in a war zone.

Anyone who has spent time in network or traffic engineering for a telco knows that the busiest day on the network is Mother’s Day. Even more than Christmas, or any other holiday. That is why I laughed when I read that story as it immediately resonated with me. All these soldiers and Marines HAD to call home on Mother’s Day.

So make sure that your network is ready for this Sunday, because the traffic is going to ramp up bigly.

And don’t forget to call your Mother !

Tales from the Telecom Trenchs

I am a long time voracious reader. It is a habit developed as a kid and I’ve kept it up throughout my life. Usually, in the hour before going to bed I try to turn off all electronics and spend some time reading. Often, I will also cart my latest book(s) with me to lunches, meetings and appointments so that I can dip into it if I have some time available.

My interests are wide, and includes non-fiction as well as fiction. Philosophy, histories, biographies, business books and self-help tomes are all of interest to me. Over the last year, there have been a few outstanding books on telecom that I wanted to share here with you.

Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story by John Bloom

I read this book over the Christmas holidays as mentioned in my Jan 7, 2018 blog post on quality six-sigma. I learned from it that the Six Sigma management philosophy on eliminating defects was pioneered by Motorola (and then exported to General Electric and to Japan). This book covers the history and the fascinating story of the Iridium LEO satellite system built by Motorola and the huge commercial and political battle to save it from being destroyed due to bankruptcy.

The story itself is fascinating, both from a revolutionary technology perspective and from a business, military and government perspective. It gives some great insight into the thinking that goes on behind the scenes and behind the headlines and how one determined man can make a difference.

It is also very relevant to our current times as there are now multiple groups trying to launch new LEO satellite constellations to provide broadband Internet anywhere on Earth; Elon Musk’s Space-X (Starlink), Richard Branson’s (and Qualcomm and Softbank) OneWeb (to be launched using Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin), and Mark Zuckerburg’s PointView Tech (Athena). The race to provide space-based connectivity has drawn interest from all of the Silicon Valley heavyweights.

I highly recommend reading this book as it will provide some useful context to the upcoming space-based battles as well as being a great tale on its own.

Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of Blackberry
by Sean Silcoff, Jacquie McNish

This is the story of the Blackberry, from the company formerly known as Research in Motion. Told by two veteran Globe and Mail, Report on Business journalists it brings to life one the premier Canadian technology success stories.

This was very fascinating to me as I lived through this time and this story. Blackberry is headquartered here in Waterloo; this is a very local and vary familiar story. I recognized many of the people and events in the book and found it incredible to read it all again.

It highlights the founders Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie and how they revolutionized telecommunications by inventing a whole device, the smartphone. There was a time where the “Crackberry” ( a very addictive device) was THE phone to have; whether you were in business, finance or even the President of the USA.

Yet, from the heights of owning the market, Blackberry fell due to a combination of factors, all outlined in this riveting tale.

Again, highly recommended both as a celebration of a Canadian success story, but also as a cautionary tale.

Broadbandits: Inside the $750 Billion Telecom Heist by Om Malik

This book is now almost fifteen years old. Om Malik is someone I have immense respect for. He was an investigative reporter when he wrote this before he launched GigaOm, one of the top technology and business blogs in the world and turned it into a media company and research firm. He is now a respected venture partner at True Ventures.I follow Om on social media and always look forward to his curated reading list each week.

Broadbandits is another story that I personally lived through, and it also brought back many memories and many emotions, including a lot of swearing. It describes a lot of the financial fraud behind the telecom bubble of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Telecom giants such as WorldCom, Global Crossing, and the financiers and stock pundits who ended up causing huge financial losses.That telecom bubble affected me directly, as we were just in the process of trying to sell AMI when the market collapsed. Many friends lost a lot of money in the stock market collapse of these frauds.

Reading this book brought it all back to me. If you have been in telecom for a few years you will recognize some of these stories and may have the same reactions I did. If you have been in telecom for less than a decade, read this book to find out the real history and some of the deceit and lies and fraud that preceded you. Either way, it is important to remember the Wild West days of a stodgy industry like telecom here in North America (and Canada was NOT exempt).

Again, highly recommended.