Start-Up OneWeb Seals Funding For Massive Broadband Satellite Launch

London-based start-up OneWeb has raised $1.25 billion (£940m) in a new capital funding round, paving the way for a massive satellite launch campaign to begin later this year, as it looks to build the world’s first high-speed, satellite-based broadband network.

The company said its launch plans were now “inevitable”.

OneWeb, founded by US telecoms entrepreneur Greg Wyler and based in West London, has raised a total of $3.4bn, including the latest round, from the likes of Japanese tech giant Softbank, Virgin Group, Coca-Cola and chipmaker Qualcomm.

The new funding follows the company’s launch of its first satellites last month, and allows it to accelerate its plans to have its network in place by 2021.

Satellite rivals

It faces competition from satellite rivals including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has demonstration satellites in place, as well as Telesat and Leosat, but OneWeb and its investors believe the seven-year-old company has a first-mover advantage.

Softbank said OneWeb is “on track to become the world’s largest and first truly global communications network”.

The start-up said the launch of its first six satellites, the completion of its satellite manufacturing facility in Florida, success in maintaining valuable spectrum rights and signing its first customer contracts were all steps toward deployment of the operational network.

The satellites are being produced in cooperation with European aerospace giant Airbus.

A previous Wyler venture, O3b, maintains a network of 16 satellites around Earth’s equator, flying at an altitude of 8,000km, but OneWeb’s plans are far more ambitious.

The firm plans to ramp up satellite production this spring at its Florida facility, with the aim of producing the relatively small and inexpensive $1m satellites at a rate of two a day, compared to an industry average closer to two per quarter.

Then, beginning in the fourth quarter of this year, OneWeb is looking to begin monthly launches of more than 30 satellites at a time, in order to build out an initial network of 650 satellites, operating at only 1,200km above the ground.

The network is ultimately planned to consist of some 2,000 satellites – which roughly the total number of satellites in operation around the Earth today.

OneWeb called its plans “the largest satellite launch campaign in history”.

Challenges ahead

The firm has developed low-cost antennas that would provide high-speed broadband to locations such as schools and businesses that are located in areas poorly served or inaccessible by fibre-optic networks.

It says the network would also be suitable for businesses that require worldwide connectivity, including the aviation, maritime, backhaul and land mobility industries.

“We are committed to bridging the digital divide, and this funding helps ensure our globally shared dream will soon become a reality,” Wyler said in a statement.

The satellite fleet requires an extensive operations team on the ground, including operations centres in London and Virginia and ground stations in Italy, Norway and Canada, with more planned.

Industry watchers say it’s unlikely the market could support all the competing broadband satellite fleets that are planned, and note that previous satellite communications ventures such as Iridium and Globalstar turned out badly for investors.

OneWeb says it is addressing such concerns through its unusual satellite network design and first-mover advantage.

The plans of OneWeb and its competitors also pose a challenge for the space industry, which would need to dramatically increase its launches per year to meet their satellite demands.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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