OneWeb agrees SoftBank alliance to get Japanese regulatory approvals

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TAMPA, Fla. — Japanese internet giant SoftBank has agreed an alliance with OneWeb to expand its low Earth orbit (LEO) broadband services in Japan and worldwide.

The collaboration with SoftBank, which has invested in OneWeb, is an important step toward getting regulatory approvals and setting up ground stations in Japan for the startup’s growing constellation.

SoftBank owns stakes in technology, energy and financial companies worldwide, and also operates a telecoms business in Japan where it serves more than 45 million mobile consumer and enterprise subscribers.

OneWeb said their alliance will promote their combined communications services, including platforms SoftBank is building to digitize company operations.

SoftBank posted net income equivalent to nearly $46 billion for its fiscal year ending March 31, a record for a Japanese listed company. 

Successful bets in the company’s $100 billion Vision Fund and its successor boosted these figures, including gains from South Korean e-commerce company Coupang and food-delivery service DoorDash when they listed on public markets.

The results will grow investor confidence in SoftBank founder Masa Son, who often speaks about investing for a future when ubiquitous connectivity meets “singularity,” when machines can outthink humans.

Son blamed COVID-19 after SoftBank reported its first annual loss in 15 years in 2020, an operating loss of 1.36 trillion yen ($12.7 billion). 

The Japanese company was an early investor in OneWeb. At one point it tried to engineer a merger between the startup and established satellite fleet operator Intelsat, which operates spacecraft in geostationary orbit (GEO).

Holders of Intelsat’s debt shot down that deal in 2017. 

Struggling under nearly $15 billion of debt as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, Intelsat entered bankruptcy protection in May 2020 in a process it is still working through a year later.

COVID-19 also pushed OneWeb into bankruptcy in March 2020. 

After the British government and Indian telecom company Bharti Global rescued OneWeb from Chapter 11 in November, SoftBank returned with a $350 million capital infusion. Hughes Network Systems, which is developing parts of OneWeb’s ground segment, invested $50 million.

On April 27, French satellite operator Eutelsat paid $550 million to buy 24% of OneWeb. 

OneWeb expects to raise the rest of the money it needs to complete its constellation, estimated to be around $500 million, later in 2021.

It has already launched more than a third of its 648 LEO satellite fleet, ahead of its goal to launch partial services before the end of this year, and globally in 2022.

As part of plans to create a new government subsidiary for selling its services, OneWeb said May 10 it will buy Texas-based managed satcoms provider TrustComm for an undisclosed sum.

The acquisition comes after OneWeb, which expects the Department of Defense will be its largest customer, secured a demo contract with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) for strategic Arctic locations. Hughes is the prime contractor for that contract.