LONDON-London-based start-up OneWeb is set to launch the first six satellites in its multi-billion-pound project to take the internet to every corner of the globe. The plans could eventually see some 2,000 spacecraft orbiting overhead. Other companies are also promising so-called mega-constellations, but One-Web believes it has first-mover advantage with an operational system. Wednesday’s launch on a Soyuz rocket from French Guiana is timed for 18:37 local time.

The platforms’ most important task is to secure the frequencies needed to relay the coming network’s internet connections. Assuming these pathfinders perform as expected, OneWeb will then begin the mass rollout of the rest of the constellation towards the end of the year. This will see Soyuz rockets launching every month, lofting up to 36 satellites at a time. To provide global internet coverage, there will need to be 648 units in orbit. “We have a tonne of spectrum and we have it everywhere on Planet Earth,” explained OneWeb CEO Adrian Steckel.

“We’re going to connect lots of people who’re not currently connected. We’re going to start by focussing on connecting schools, connecting boats, connecting planes, and connecting huge swathes of the planet that don’t make sense for fibre,” he told BBC News. The network will sit 1,200km above the Earth and promises strong debris mitigation measures

Who’s backing OneWeb?

The company was started by American telecoms entrepreneur Greg Wyler. He’d previously founded another constellation called O3b, which stands for “other three billion” - a reference to that half of the planet without connectivity. O3b operates a fleet of 16 satellites moving around the equator at an altitude of 8,000km. OneWeb is Wyler’s even grander vision - a much denser network that flies just 1,200km above the ground. The satellites’ nearness, their high throughput - over one terabit per second across the constellation - and global coverage promises to transform internet provision for those who are currently underserved, or simply un-served.

At least that’s the view shared by OneWeb’s partners, who include companies such as chip-maker Qualcomm, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, drinks giant Coca-Cola, satellite communications specialist Hughes, and tech financier SoftBank. Satellite technology is much, much less expensive than it used to be, and the large number of satellites needed for the network reduces the unit cost.

Even so, the spacecraft being turned out by OneWeb partner Airbus have a price of about one million dollars. When you add in all the ground infrastructure needed to operate the system, the overall expense runs to more than three billion. Some past satellite ventures that sought to build big constellations went belly up. Satphone companies like Iridium and Globalstar only exist today because bankruptcy proceedings relieved them of their debt.

Several other groups have registered their interest in competing with OneWeb, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX company. Musk’s engineers even have a couple satellites in orbit now to demonstrate technologies. Commentators seem sure of only one thing: the market will not support all of the proposed mega-constellations. Controllers in Virginia and London have been busy rehearsing launch day

Successive UK governments have tried to foster a business and regulatory environment that encourages space businesses to make Britain their home base - and they’ve succeeded, believes Mr Steckel.

“We think that the UK Space Agency (UKSA) has done a fantastic job, looking at what OneWeb could be as a disruptor in the satellite industry and in terms of expanding the use cases (for our services),” he told BBC News.

 The plans could eventually see some

2000

spacecraft orbiting overhead