Virgin, Qualcomm Invest in OneWeb Satellite Internet Venture

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PARIS — WorldVu Satellites Ltd., which has a license to operate a global network of low-orbiting Ku-band satellites to provide Internet access to fixed and mobile terminals, on Jan. 15 said it has secured chipmaker Qualcomm Inc. and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group as investors.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who had been in discussions with WorldVu founder Greg Wyler, is absent from the investor list, at least for now, Wyler said. But with Musk set to announce Jan. 16 that he is building a satellite production facility in Seattle, Musk may be in a position to win at least part of the business of WorldVu, now called OneWeb Ltd.

In a Jan. 14 interview, Wyler said OneWeb is in a final review of candidate satellite manufacturers and will select a prime contractor by this spring. Satellite launches would start in 2017.

Greg Wyler. Credit: o3b video screen grab
Greg Wyler. Credit: o3b

The OneWeb network is currently designed as some 650 125-kilogram satellites operating at 1,200 kilometers in altitude, each capable of delivering at least 8 gigabits per second of throughput to provide Internet access to homes and mobile platforms.

Based in Britain’s Channel Islands, OneWeb has begun work on user terminals whose antennas — combining mechanical steering and a phased-array antenna — would measure 36 centimeters by 16 centimeters. They would provide Internet access at 50 megabits per second.

Wyler founded O3b Networks, now a 12-satellite constellation of medium Earth orbit Ka-band satellites serving telecommunications operators and other corporate and government customers. O3b’s major shareholder is satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg. Wyler declined to say whether SES or any other existing fleet operator had expressed interest in joining OneWeb.

OneWeb is likely to cost between $1.5 billion and $2 billion to build, launch and insure the satellites, and complete early user-terminal work.

Qualcomm Research Center in San Diego, California. Courtesy of Wikipedia
Qualcomm Research Center in San Diego, California. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Wyler declined to disclose the amount of OneWeb equity that San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc. and Virgin Group of London have purchased. Qualcomm Executive Chairman Paul Jacobs and Virgin founder Branson will have seats on OneWeb’s board of directors.

Wyler said Virgin Galactic, a part of Virgin Group now testing aircraft for an edge-of-space tourism business and to launch small satellites into low Earth orbit, would be one of the companies taking on satellite launch capabilities, for both deploying and replacing satellites.

For the body of the constellation, he said, OneWeb has already started the design of a multisatellite dispenser to be fitted under the fairing of the carrier rockets to be selected for the contract.

In a Jan. 15 statement on Virgin’s website, Branson suggested that Virgin Galactic will be launching most of the OneWeb spacecraft. “We have the biggest order ever for putting satellites into space,” Branson said. “By the time our second constellation is developed, the company will have launched more satellites than there currently are in the sky.”

Setting Up Shop

OneWeb issued a request for bids to prospective satellite builders in late 2014 and expects to select one by this spring, Wyler said. He said that while U.S. and international satellite builders were being vetted, the actual OneWeb production line likely would be built in the United States.

OneWeb intends to co-own the satellite production facility and has been in contact with several state governments in the United States about incentive packages for setting up shop on their territory.

Wyler said Musk, with whom Wyler had talked about the OneWeb idea, is for the moment not among the investors or partners in the project.

Wyler suggested it was only a coincidence that Musk announced this week his intention of establishing a satellite-production plant in Seattle, which he said would start with 60 people and ultimately expand to several hundred.

Musk’s association with Wyler had been seen as a way for Musk to enter the satellite production business – where profit margins, while not rich, are nonetheless thicker than the rocket production business. For Wyler, a Musk association would have facilitated access to capital.

Wyler said financing has never been a roadblock for the project and is not likely to become one. OneWeb is the only one to have secured an International Telecommunication Union license for a nongeostationary global Ku-band network.

With Wyler possessing the Ku-band license, and Ka-band spectrum now reserved by multiple satellite operators across the geostationary arc, any prospective competitors will have a more difficult time securing a license that does not interfere with satellites already in the ITU reservation system, which have higher priority.

Avoiding interference with broadcasts from satellites in geostationary orbit is a major engineering challenge for OneWeb or anyone else operating non-geostationary satellites in frequencies used by dozens of higher-orbit satellites. Wyler said the OneWeb system will use a technique called “progressive pitch” in which the satellites are slightly turned to avoid interference with Ku-band satellites in geostationary orbit.

Wyler has made several ITU filings at different orbits, but those related to OneWeb expire in 2018 and 2020. He said the company is in a final review of prime contractors and likely would select one in a couple of months at the latest. Construction could begin in time for the first launches to occur in early 2017 — well in advance of the ITU deadline.

“We are very conscious of our BIU dates and will meet our ITU deadlines,” Wyler said, referring to the ITU’s “Bringing into Use” provisions that signal when a network must start operations or forfeit its reservation.

“We did it with O3b and we’ll do it again with OneWeb,” Wyler said, stressing that the O3b business of delivering high-throughput to corporate and government users has few overlaps with the lower-speed OneWeb, whose market is centered on individual consumers and airlines.