Amid concerns, OneWeb gets vague about constellation’s cost
PARIS — As OneWeb strives to complete the financing of its satellite megaconstellation, the company has stopped affirming the cost targets envisioned when the program began.
OneWeb in 2015 set the goal of building 900 satellites for $500,000 each or less, with the total estimated cost of building, launching and operating the constellation at $3.5 billion.
Speaking Sept. 11 at Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week conference here, OneWeb President and Chief Operating Officer Eric Béranger refused to affirm satellite unit costs or total program costs despite industry speculation that both have grown well beyond the starting estimates.
“We do not communicate about the overall cost of system,” Béranger said during a panel discussion focused on non-geostationary-orbiting satellite constellations.
Asked by SpaceNews if the satellites could still come in under $500,000 each, Béranger said only that they were now “below $1 million” per unit.
Industry analysts who follow OneWeb said as recently as August that OneWeb is looking at roughly $700,000 to $900,000 per satellite once serial production begins at a brand-new $85 million factory in Exploration Park, Florida. OneWeb Satellites, a joint venture with Airbus Defence and Space, is building the first 10 satellites in Toulouse, France. Those initial satellites are due to launch in December or early 2019 depending on Soyuz launch availability with Arianespace.
“There has been widespread industry skepticism about that $500,000 number for a long time,” said a financial analyst and long-time industry observer here. “The problem is that once they publicly announce that the price has increased, they lose credibility with potential investors…hence the hedging. Eventually the truth comes out.”
“A hell of a job”
If OneWeb was already causing heartburn across the industry, events of the past week have not helped matters.
On Sept. 7, as top space executives were headed here for the World Satellite Business Week’s annual Summit on Satellite Financing, OneWeb announced that Béranger relinquished his role as chief executive of OneWeb last week, splitting responsibilities with the company’s new CEO Adrian Steckel.
Steckel’s prior employer, Uphold, described OneWeb as a “$6B Global Satellite Broadband Effort” in a Sept. 7 press release announcing his departure from the digital currency company he co-founded. OneWeb spokesperson Katie Dowd told SpaceNews Sept. 8 that the $6 billion figure Uphold referenced was not accurate. A corrected press release Uphold issued Sept. 9 omitted any mention of OneWeb’s projected price tag.
Steckel is OneWeb’s fourth CEO in as many years. Béranger said funding was at the center of OneWeb’s most recent management shakeup, allowing him to focus on building the company while Steckel pursues additional financing.
“To be honest, I am very happy to see [Steckel] coming because between the road shows and building the company, it’s such a hectic period,” Béranger said. “It is quite a hell of a job.”
OneWeb has raised $1.7 billion in equity since 2015, with Japanese tech giant SoftBank providing $1 billion of that total. After closing a SoftBank-led round in late 2016, OneWeb said it would finish the rest of its financing needs by borrowing money. Some 21 months later, the company has not revealed any debt financing.
OneWeb has suppliers and manufacturing partners in the United States, France and Canada, the three countries with export-credit agencies known for their participation in satellite financing.
In the U.S., the Export-Import Bank has lacked enough board members for a quorum since July 2015 and consequently remains unable to approve projects over $10 million. President Donald Trump’s latest nominee to head the bank, Kimberly Reed, is still awaiting Senate confirmation.
Meanwhile, BPI France, formerly Coface, has expressed reservations about whether OneWeb’s satellites will have enough French content to justify its support. After building the first 10 in Toulouse, OneWeb intends to shift production to its new Florida factory.
In Paris, Béranger put a brave face on OneWeb’s outlook, saying the company has a “huge pipeline” with hundreds of prospective customers that are “extremely eager to see us up and running.”
Although OneWeb’s initial launch has slipped from the May target it held as the year began, the company still expects to have its first spacecraft orbit within the next few months or so.
“All of this is giving us an extremely good feeling in terms of closing our business case,” he said.