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Watcher Of The Skies: How A More Ambitious Commonwealth Could Bridge The Global Digital Divide

On the 20th November 2020, His Majesty’s Government acquired a controlling stake in satellite communications company OneWeb.

What is OneWeb? What do they do, what problems do they plan to solve, what has this to do with the Commonwealth of Nations? Most of us will be familiar with a few lynchpins of our modern communications technology: broadband, satellites, cables. Thanks to a highly developed global cable network, 66% of the world’s population is now connected to and using the Internet. 95% of the world’s population is covered by a 3G or above mobile broadband network. Contrary to popular belief, this is not, for the most part, a satellite-based network. Almost all modern internet coverage is dependent on the wireless cell tower and the physical cable.

OneWeb, however, proposes to launch a global satellite communications network, using a constellation of Low Earth Orbit satellites, overcoming many of the limitations of the current system. Put simply, OneWeb is a company planning to provide Internet access through satellites.

But what has it to do with the Commonwealth? Firstly, it is part owned by the British government. This is no small matter. Despite a serious overhaul to its ownership structure during the 2022 merger with competitor Eutelsat, the British government retained its ‘special share’, ensuring a final say over access to OneWeb technology abroad, and over any future sale of the company.

Secondly, OneWeb has deep ties to India. Indian telecoms giant Bharti Global is one of the largest shareholders in OneWeb and Eutelsat. Its chairman, Sunil Bharti Mittal, serves as OneWeb's executive chair. Moreover, OneWeb has also played a key role in the burgeoning Indian space industry, with 36 of its satellites launched by NewSpace India Ltd. from Sriharikota on the 23rd of October 2022. In October 2021, it became a founding member of the Indian Space Association.

With joint British and Indian ownership, and close ties to the governments of both countries, the company provides a perfect example of the role Commonwealth nations are playing and will continue to play in the global space industry. Of course, OneWeb is not the first organisation to provide satellite Internet connectivity.

Already, individuals and institutions can connect to the Internet through the existing constellation of Geo-Stationary Orbit (GEO) satellites. This system is deeply flawed - and here's the technical part. To provide a full-scale broadband network, satellites must be able to handle the ‘backhaul’ section of a network: the crucial link between the local network you or I connect to on our personal devices – such as from mobile phone to cell tower – and the core network at the very centre. GEO satellites cannot do this. Situated 36,000km above the equator, signals travelling there and back ultimately encounter a latency – delay – of around 600ms. Imperceptible to us, but crucial in the world of Internet connection. Backhaul networks require a latency of 350ms or less, some 4G services no more than 150ms.

It is here that LEO satellites provide a solution. Orbiting at only 200 to 1,500 km above the Earth, LEO satellites can face a latency as low as 30-40ms. This technology will no doubt prove revolutionary for many Commonwealth countries. Some of the most glaring examples of the global ‘digital divide’ can be found within the Commonwealth. While 85% of the population can access the internet in high-income Commonwealth countries, in low-income members the figure stands at just 18%. Internet access is a particular difficulty for the many small nations dotted around the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean, for whom the problem of remoteness and oceanic isolation has been a key obstacle in obtaining reliable, affordable and widespread internet access. As late as 2020, internet penetration in the Pacific stood at just 35.4% - below the then-global average of 59%. Remoteness alone is a regular obstacle to widening internet access. Even in Great Britain, the difficulty of providing traditional wireless or cabled infrastructure in rural areas, such as in the remote Scottish islands of the Outer Hebrides, has led to talks between BT and OneWeb on a satellite-based alternative. The sea is another matter entirely. For networks to reach isolated islands through conventional means, thousands of miles of expensive and disruptive cable must be laid. When considered alongside the sparse population of island regions, and the limited potential profit, it is no surprise that Internet providers have thus far been unable or unwilling to provide affordable connectivity to these areas.

In the 21st Century, access to the internet will prove essential to a country’s ability to participate in the global economy. Bridging the digital divide between member states of all shapes, sizes, and types must be one of the Commonwealth’s central concerns in the coming years.

OneWeb could prove to be an instrumental part of narrowing the internet access gap. By replacing the costly construction of terrestrial network infrastructure with access to a global constellation of satellites, OneWeb is in position to provide affordable and reliable internet services to the most remote and isolated of nations. Already, OneWeb has entered deals with partners as broad as the Kazakh national rail operator Kazakhstan Temir Zholy and leading Omani broadband provider Azyan Telecomto provide just such a service. The same can be seen in the deal made at the beginning of this month between OneWeb and Canadian service provider Galaxy Broadband to supplement existing broadband networks within Canada: here, OneWeb’s superior polar coverage gives it an additional edge over competitors. Such innovative solutions must not remain the preserve of the richest nations. The Commonwealth’s 2020 report ‘The State of the Digital Economy in the Commonwealth’ correctly identifies that it must “facilitate best practices on internet and broadband digital infrastructure." Few clearer ways exist to achieve this goal than OneWeb’s technology. This is perfectly within the capability of Commonwealth members: the United Kingdom and India continue to have considerable influence over the company, and should use this influence to the benefit of their fellow Commonwealth members.

Thomas Brian is a history and politics student at Peterhouse, Cambridge. He has written for a variety of publications, including The Critic magazine and Varsity, the official newspaper of the University of Cambridge.

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