LONDON and WASHINGTON — Satellite telecom startup OneWeb, emboldened by the oversubscribed $1.2 billion Softbank-led investment gained in December, is on the verge of adding another 2,000 satellites to its previously proposed constellation of several hundred satellites.
OneWeb made a big splash in June 2015 when it went public with an impressive roster of investors pledging some $500 million to deploy more than 600 small, low-orbiting satellites to blanket the Earth in Ku-band broadband connectivity.
On Wednesday, Greg Wyler, OneWeb’s founder and executive chairman, told an audience at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London that the company has sold a considerable portion of the capacity of its initial planned constellation and is seriously considering quadrupling its size.
“We are adding 2,000 satellites at different altitudes in low Earth orbit,” Wyler told SpaceNews in London. “We have priority rights to another 2,000 satellites — 1,972 satellites, to be precise. With Softbank we have reinvigorated our activities and started talking about the strong possibility that we will be adding to the constellation using our priority rights.”
The expansion plans materialized after Japanese mogul Masyoshi Son, the CEO of SoftBank, jumped on board with a $1 billion investment. Previous investors committed to an additional $200 million, bringing OneWeb’s total capital raised to $1.7 billion.
“[Son] has really put the throttles full-forward when it comes to our mission of bridging the digital divide globally by 2027,” Wyler said in London.
“We are not talking about it yet, but we will start talking about it soon. You will hear about some great launch scale step function changes to our plans and improvements,” the 47-year-old entrepreneur continued. “We are really looking at many new things. You will see some more satellites in a few places that you wouldn’t expect.”
In addition to its official focus on connecting the world’s four billion unconnected citizens to the world wide web by the end of the next decade, OneWeb is eyeing the nascent Internet of Things sector, connected cars and in-flight connectivity.
Adding 1,972 satellites to OneWeb’s previously announced 648 puts the total constellation at 2,620. In a telephone interview with SpaceNews on Thursday evening, Wyler said OneWeb is very actively considering this level of expansion, but was less committal than at the London event.
“We always had this as a possibility,” he said. “What we are doing is really difficult. Our team has made tremendous progress. When looking at some of the accomplishments that have become real and validated over the past several months, we’ve been strongly encouraged that this next phase should be accelerated. Our shareholders are pushing us hard to accelerate because the interest in demand and in the need to accomplish our mission is quite pressing.”
The first 10 OneWeb spacecraft are scheduled to launch about a year from now on a Europeanized Soyuz rocket from Arianespace. Those, Wyler said, will provide service as part of the full constellation.
In London, Wyler also suggested that although the company hasn’t formally announced having sold any capacity — save perhaps Gogo’s March 2016 deal with Intelsat for combined geostationary and LEO capacity — that demand from the world’s telecommunications operators is strong. When asked how much capacity he expects to have sold by the time the initial constellation launches, he replied: “all of it.”
Speaking by phone Thursday night, Wyler said the decision on whether to quadruple the size of the OneWeb constellation will be made before the end of the year.
“I don’t want to say we are definitely doing it, but I can say that we are very strongly considering it, and based upon our priority rights, we have always had this as a possibility,” he said. “Our first system has 1.5 to 2 terabits of forward capacity, and we will be very substantially increasing that.”
SpaceNews staff writer Caleb Henry contributed from Washington.