WASHINGTON — The new executive chairman of OneWeb is optimistic the company can raise the billions of dollars of additional funding needed to complete development of the company’s broadband constellation and work on a second generation of the system.
Sunil Bharti Mittal, founder and chairman of Bharti Enterprises, which joined forces with the British government to acquire OneWeb out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, acknowledged at an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) conference Dec. 9 that space is a “capital intensive” industry but that his experience with terrestrial telecommunications markets made him confident that the company will be able to raise the required funding.
He estimated the cost of getting OneWeb’s initial constellation of about 650 satellites into orbit, and establishing the other infrastructure needed for the network, at between $5.5 billion and $7 billion. “Thankfully, OneWeb spent a lot of money in the first phase, and that’s where a lot of money goes booking the launches, building satellites,” he said.
He estimated OneWeb will need to raise $2.5 billion to complete the constellation. Half of that, he said, has been arranged between Bharti Enterprises and the U.K. government, who combined own about 85% of the post-bankruptcy company. “I don’t see raising capital for this wonderful project for the balance amount to be any issue,” he said, noting that Bharti Enterprises had raised more than $12 billion in the last 18–24 months for other projects.
OneWeb halted deployment of the constellation shortly after filing for Chapter 11 in March. It will resume deployment Dec. 18 with the launch of 36 satellites on a Soyuz rocket from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia. Mittal said launches will then follow roughly once a month until the constellation is completed.
That schedule will allow OneWeb to provide service in northern latitudes, which he defined as above 50 degrees north, by October or November of 2021. Full global coverage will follow in May or June of 2022.
Getting OneWeb into service requires more than deploying the satellites. Mittal also emphasized setting up ground stations, calling on governments to create “liberal policies to allow for ground station networks to be put up in their respective countries.”
Another key issue is creation of user terminals for the system. The industry, he argued, needs to ensure that those terminals are available “at price points which are affordable.” He didn’t specify a target price for such terminals.
While OneWeb is offering broadband services for applications ranging from cellular backhaul to aviation and maritime connectivity, Mittal said the company was also interested in pursuing navigation services. “Then, of course, there will be PNT — positioning, navigation and timing — applications to provide accurate locations and provide navigational aids to all the mobility industries,” he said.
OneWeb’s interest in PNT services has gotten a skeptical reception from the industry. Among other issues, the company’s satellites use a different frequency than the range used by global navigation systems, like GPS.
Mittal acknowledged later in the talk that the initial OneWeb system will not offer navigation services. “Right now in Gen 1, which are all being launched in the coming months, we’ll have the timing already built into it, but the positioning and navigation will have to wait until Gen 2, which I would say is a couple of years away,” he said.
He claimed those future services will be more accurate and less susceptible to interference than GPS, but didn’t elaborate on those claims, or give other details about those proposed services and their cost. “We have the ambition of providing PNT services through OneWeb,” he said. “We believe we will be onto this path in the coming years.”