Thursday , June 17 2021

OneWeb wants to rebuild the Internet in space and connect billions that are not online

Greg Wyler visited the satellite operations center in a Tysons, Va., High-rise building to pump up the team to tell them it has now arrived. Smiling and radiating a childish energy, Wyler gushed that the system they built is "amazing" that they "want to democratize space".

"It's a big step forward for space, a step forward for the world," he said.

Wyle's dream of radiating the internet from space to distant corners of the world is finally here, he said. In February, the first of his company's satellites from a distant French Guiana site launched an important step towards building a constellation that could eventually reach nearly 2,000 satellites.

If Wyler's plans are successful, what he and his collaborators at OneWeb are imagining, nothing less than revolutionary: Become one of the world's largest providers of internet services by building the architecture of space so that billions of people can use the Internet. Wyler founded the UK company in 2012.

"The ultimate goal is to connect every school in the world and bridge the digital sharing," Wyler said in an interview after his pep talk. "We bring support and enable people all over the world and in rural areas."

If successful, remote areas around the world – from Alaska to Africa – out of reach of fiber optic cables can suddenly be in the world of Facebook and YouTube, a feat Wyler and others think could be transformative.

But building the backbone of the Internet in orbit is not an easy task. Others have tried to put together constellations of communication satellites. The huge price is only bypassed by the risk of setting up hundreds of spacecraft in orbit.

There are plenty of business school case studies of past failure, such as Teledesic – a company funded in the mid-1990s by Bill Gates, wireless executive Craig McCaw and a Saudi Arabian prince – who closed down after the cost rose in billions. Trials by Iridium and GlobalStar, both of which ended in bankruptcy, also illustrate how difficult the effort can be.

"OneWeb's concept of ubiquitous global broadband is deeply convincing," said Carissa Christensen, CEO of Bryce Space and Technology. "However, the underlying business case for OneWeb is still very uncertain, and I have not yet seen a compelling plan that completely closes."

The key question, she said, "Can they deliver a product that competes and wins?"

While OneWeb can meet the technical challenges, get the regulatory approvals and break into the market, or expand it, others are doing the same.

For Elon Musk.

His rocket company, SpaceX, also strengthens to build a constellation of satellites, known as Starlink, a project that has been exceptionally quiet about. At the end of last year, the Federal Communications Commission granted SpaceX permission to form a massive constellation, which could eventually have as many as 12,000 satellites. SpaceX raises $ 500 million for the project, and in 2015 it received a $ 1 billion investment from Google and Fidelity.

Wyler, who founded another satellite company called O3b, said he was "aware of failure". But he said his team was "super focused on success".

The technology has improved since previous trials, as has the demand in a growing digital economy. And the investment funds have poured. Over the years, OneWeb has won support from several major investors, including a partnership with Airbus, as well as investments from Richard Branson's Virgin Group, Coca-Cola, SoftBank, Qualcomm and others. Wyler will not say exactly how much the company has traveled, but that it is "well over 2 billion. The interest rate level is high at all times because it is all right."

OneWeb's constellation would consist of relatively small satellites – about the size of a refrigerator – which would zoom around the earth, connecting stations on the ground.

The company has terrestrial antennas installed in several countries, including Italy, Canada and Norway; Starting later this year, it plans to launch satellites every month. It also emphasizes that it has the spectrum it needs for its mission.

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