SoftBank says GEO operators besides Intelsat can sell OneWeb capacity

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WASHINGTON — OneWeb’s largest investor SoftBank expects to bring in several partners to help sell OneWeb capacity, including potentially other geostationary satellite operators.

SoftBank, through its $1 billion investment in OneWeb, has rights to all the capacity on the operator’s planned low Earth orbit megaconstellation. Fleet operator Intelsat, in trying to combine with OneWeb last year, failed to close the merger but retained distribution rights for OneWeb capacity to several end-user customer groups.

Speaking March 13 at the Washington Space Business Roundtable’s annual flagship lunch during Satellite 2018 conference here, Alex Clavel, SoftBank’s managing director, said Intelsat’s relationship with OneWeb doesn’t preclude other geostationary satellite operators from becoming resellers of OneWeb capacity.

“Intelsat has certain rights around the capacity, but we’ve bought it all, and we will be allocating it out with Intelsat and others as important partners, Clavel said. “We will have many partners across different verticals and geographies distributing our product.”

Clavel didn’t specify if other GEO satellite operators have expressed interest in becoming resellers, but some operators did try to supplant Intelsat as the operator’s OneWeb merger was faltering, OneWeb founder Greg Wyler told SpaceNews last June.

SoftBank’s arrangement with OneWeb is such that SoftBank has agreed to sell OneWeb’s capacity and make payments to OneWeb “whether or not we are able to sell it,” Clavel said.

That agreement is “a way of underpinning the confidence we have in our ability to deliver,” he said.

Clavel said SoftBank is working “throughout the ecosystem” to bring together all the pieces needed to make OneWeb’s megaconstellation a success.

“We are also jumping in and probably taking more of the risk than we normally would because without us doing that, it wouldn’t quite be possible that we could pull everything together,” he said.

One area of activity for SoftBank is with user terminals — an area industry observers view as in need of meaningful advancement to be able to bring all the capacity proposed by megaconstellations into use. Clavel said SoftBank is talking to “all of the major antenna players,” and is willing to make investments in that field.  

“We are absolutely open minded to using our capital aggressively to open the doors that we need to and to bringing the price points down,” he said.

OneWeb has the goal of closing the global digital divide — connecting the world’s population unreached by the internet — by 2027. Accomplishing that goal will require mass-produced, low-cost terminals that can perform complicated tasks like tracking two or more satellites simultaneously.

Clavel said SoftBank is playing a very long-term investment game with OneWeb, and is in no rush to see a return on investment. As evidence, he cited investments in Alibaba in 1999, Vodafone Japan (now SoftBank Mobile) in 2005, and Yahoo Japan in 1996, all of which are still part of SoftBank’s portfolio.

“We will invest massively in return for what we think will be massive returns over the long run,” he said. “Is this a near term let’s build this thing and try to sell it? Couldn’t be further from the truth.”