WorldVu Seeks Builder for Smallsat Constellation, Wants To Co-own Production Facility


PARIS — WorldVu Satellites Ltd., which has secured regulatory approval for the use of Ku-band spectrum in a nongeostationary-orbit constellation of hundreds of satellites for a global broadband Internet service, has issued requests for bids to satellite manufacturers for 640 125-kilogram satellites, industry officials said.

The system, which has been variously described as affiliated with Google and more recently with Space Exploration Technologies Corp. founder Elon Musk, is estimated to cost about $1.5 billion, including launch, for satellites that would each have 14 gigabits per second of throughput and orbit at 1,200 kilometers in altitude. The satellites would have a design life of seven years or more.

One official said the bid request asks for responses by mid-December and features a requirement that the prospective manufacturers agree to creating a joint-venture company in which WorldVu would co-own the satellite production facility.

“The idea behind this is that the way people build satellites today is not the way they should be built tomorrow,” this official said. “It’s true that the [profit] margins in the satellite manufacturing business stink. But there is a value in having full control of the design so that iterations could be made throughout the manufacturing process.”

Based in Britain’s Channel Islands, WorldVu was founded by O3b Networks founder Greg Wyler. Wyler has built a team of about 30 people, including several O3b veterans, to take the O3b model to its logical conclusion — from Internet to telecommunications providers and corporations.

O3b satellites are in an 8,000-kilometer equatorial orbit to provide high-speed, low-latency Internet trunking to telecommunications operators and corporate networks whose access now is minimal or dependent on uneconomic terrestrial lines.

A third set of four O3b satellites is scheduled for launch in December. Company officials and O3b’s principal investor, satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg, have said the constellation has sufficient Ka-band spectrum available to place more than 100 satellites into it.

Under its regulatory approval secured at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), WorldVu has about 2 gigahertz of Ku-band spectrum reserved for use in a nongeostationary system. The project, which uses a bent-pipe satellite design described as innovative only in the satellites’ launch mass, follows a late-1990s attempt at a similar project by a now-defunct company called SkyBridge.

SkyBridge did the legwork at the ITU to reserve the spectrum, much as a similarly defunct company called Teledesic won ITU approval for a nongeostationary system in Ka-band, leading to O3b.

In both cases, system designers had to promise that their satellites would be able to operate at lower power over the equator so as not to disturb the Ku- and Ka-band systems in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers over the equator.

WorldVu has been tinkering with its design, while apparently not overstepping its regulatory perimeter, in recent months as it talked with satellite manufacturers and had its own in-house team refine the system architecture.

“We say the satellites are 125 kilograms at launch but they are like a highly packed 500-kilogram satellite using today’s designs,” the industry official said. “[WorldVu] has dealt with just about every major satellite manufacturer about this, and it’s fair to say just about all of them are interested.”

Under its regulatory filing, WorldVu has until 2019 or 2020 to begin initial service. In the past the ITU has been lenient with companies that show a good-faith effort to build their systems but for one reason or another are not in service by deadline.

Musk, in a Nov. 10 posting on Twitter, said, “SpaceX is still in the early stages of developing advanced micro-satellites operating in large formations. Announcement in 2 to 3 months.”

Whether Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX, or Musk himself — whose ability to raise capital for just about anything he wants is, for the moment, unquestioned — will have a formal role in the WorldVu system is unclear.