OneWeb’s Search Down to 5 Builders for 650 Little LEOs

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WASHINGTON — The founder of a company on the verge of contracting for more than 600 low-orbiting satellites to provide global Internet access on March 17 said negotiations with prospective builders make it likely that each of the satellites will cost no more than around $400,000 apiece.

Greg Wyler, founder of OneWeb LLC of Britain’s Channel Islands, addressed the Satellite 2015 conference here with a Steve Jobs-style solo performance that included demonstrations of how a OneWeb rooftop antenna is deployed, and a look at a Rockwell Collins-designed antenna for aeronautical broadband links to the OneWeb fleet.

OneWeb is designed as a constellation of some 650 satellites in low Earth orbit – one of several that have been proposed in recent months for Internet connectivity. But OneWeb appears furthest along in development.

One industry official said OneWeb, which has chipmaker Qualcomm and Richard Branson’s Virgin Group as partners, has narrowed its search to five prospective builders. A decision is expected in April, with the winner agreeing to form a joint venture with OneWeb for satellite production.

Wyler’s presentation of OneWeb pulled more heartstrings than purse strings, focusing on the good that could be done by providing health data and communications to Ebola-ravaged nations, and by connecting 2 million schools to the web.

“This is why we do this,” Wyler said. But Satellite 2015 is not the United Nations, and most – but not all – the people approaching Wyler after his speech were there to suggest ways they might take part in OneWeb on a contractual basis.

Wyler took the stage just after the chief executives of the four largest commercial satellite fleet operators discussed their businesses. They made clear that while the excitement generated by OneWeb and similar constellations proposed by SpaceX and others had given the industry an emotional lift, there is big difference between a morale boost and a business plan.

They were not alone. In session after session – with the notable exception of the sessions featuring investment bankers – industry officials said a constellation of satelites in low Earth orbit would mean satellites orbiting over the polar regions and the oeans and other areas where demand was little or none – a wasted resource for a large chunk of each orbit.

Just as daunting, the OneWeb constellation of satellites costing less than $500,000 will feature satellites that need to be replaced every five years or so, suggesting a never-ending capital expenditure cycle. Plus regulatory hurdles, plus launch logistics and costs.

None of that has deterred Wyler in the past – he founded O3b Networks, which has 12 satellites in orbit and has SES of Luxembourg as the principal shareholders – and he did not appear freighted with return-on-invested-capital or satellite-deployment concerns during his presentation.