Branson’s OneWeb: Cheap Satellite Internet Anywhere
There’s a new space race that many people don’t know is underway. The primary competitors in this race are two of the most admired entrepreneurs in the world; Elon Musk and Richard Branson. The goal is none other than to provide internet access to everyone on the globe, anywhere. This idea has been explored before by Google’s helium balloons and Facebook’s drones. Satellites though, seem like the solution everyone has arrived at. A company backed by Richard Branson called OneWeb seems to be the front runner in the new race to provide global connectivity to the internet.
Founded in 2012, OneWeb received their first round of funding in June 2015 to the tune of $500 million. Investors included Airbus, Qualcomm, Virgin, and even Coca-Cola.
Update 01/14/2021: OneWeb has raised $350 million in funding to fund its first satellite fleet. This brings the company’s total funding to $3.4 billion to date.
The background of OneWeb is a story in itself. The founder of One Web, Greg Wyler, used to be a key employee at Google where he was driving their attempt at creating a “satellite constellation” for ubiquitous global Internet access. In 2014, Mr. Wyler quit Google taking with him rights to a certain radio spectrum that could be used for global satellite internet access. When he left, Mr. Wyler was said to be working closely with Elon Musk and SpaceX. Since then, he has decided to pursue his own firm, OneWeb, which counts Richard Branson as a board member along with the Chairman of Qualcomm, Paul Jacobs, and the CEO of Airbus, Thomas Enders.
What’s even more interesting is that Mr. Wyler already has a company, O3b Networks, that has a constellation of 8 satellites serving up internet access globally to 35 customers. O3b, which stands for the “other 3 billion”, has taken in $1.4 billion in funding so far from investors that include Google. He’s clearly leveraging his experience with O3b having brought over several senior executives from O3b to OneWeb.
OneWeb plans to build a network of 648 low-orbit satellites capable of beaming fast Internet around the world which is expected to become operational in 2019. Small, low-cost user terminals (with a solar power option) will then talk to the satellites in the sky and emit LTE, 3G, and WiFi as seen below:
Airbus will manufacture these small 330 lbs. satellites at a rate of several satellites per day. Orbiting at 700 miles up compared with more than 22,000 miles for most satellites, these small satellites are expected to achieve communication speeds up to 36 times faster than existing high orbit satellites. OneWeb recently announced the largest commercial rocket launch purchase in history with Arianespace. The purchase covers 21 launch orders with each rocket carrying between 32 and 36 satellites. Various estimates have put the cost of making OneWeb’s satellite constellation a reality at between $2-3 billion.
While both Google and Facebook have toyed with the notion of “global internet connectivity” via balloons and drones, the real competitor for OneWeb is Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The SpaceX constellation project is estimated to need around 4,000 satellites and cost as much as $10 billion to complete. At the official opening of SpaceX Seattle this year, Elon Musk stated that their go live target date was 2020, the year after OneWeb is expected to go live.
Even if OneWeb wins the race and brings their satellite constellation online first, it may not necessarily matter. Here’s what Elon Musk had to say about OneWeb:
“Greg (Wyler) and I have a fundamental disagreement about the architecture,”Musk told BusinessWeek. “We want a satellite that is an order of magnitude more sophisticated than what Greg wants. I think there should be two competing systems.”
And here’s what Richard Branson was quoted as saying about SpaceX:
Greg has the rights, and there isn’t space for another network—like there physically is not enough space. If Elon wants to get into this area, the logical thing for him would be to tie up with us, and if I were a betting man, I would say the chances of us working together rather than separately would be much higher.”
Regardless of who wins the “new space race”, this is one exciting space to watch going forward. While we speculated before on how exciting a SpaceX IPO might be, Elon Musk stated in the Seattle SpaceX opening that it isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. OneWeb just closed their first round of funding this year, so it doesn’t seem like they’ll have an IPO anytime soon either. Regardless, both companies need large amounts of capital to complete their projects which could come from an IPO. Moreover, an IPO could provide some great publicity to let the world know about their satellite constellations.
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