OneWeb Satellite Broadband Venture Secures Funding, Generates Questions

January 16, 2015
By: Doug Mohney

Will the world be surrounded by the largest satellite network ever created? OneWeb, formerly known as WorldVu Satellites, secured an undisclosed amount of funding from Qualcomm (News - Alert) and Virgin Group, to build a low-orbiting constellation of an estimated 648 Ku-band satellites. But questions remain.

Flying at a couple hundred miles above the earth's surface, OneWeb satellites will provide a constantly moving high-speed relay network. Because the satellites are flying close to the earth, there's much less latency than bouncing a signal from a traditional geosynchronous communications satellite up at over 22,200 miles above the earth. A round trip of 44,400 miles adds close to half a second in speed-of-light travel time, making phone calls and real-time interaction awkward.

OneWeb's vision is to provide low-latency, high-speed Internet access directly to small user terminals around the world. The terminals will act as small cells, with the ability to provide the surrounding area access via licensed cellular connection if using an operator partner's licensed spectrum, or unlicensed Wi-Fi or LTE (News - Alert) otherwise. Terminals are designed to be self-installable and deliver Internet access at 50 megabits per second, using a combination of mechanical steering and phased array antenna, reports Space News (News - Alert).

Estimates to build, launch and do early terminal work range between $1.5 billion to $2 billion. Nobody's talking about how much initial cash Qualcomm and Virgin have put into OneWeb, but Virgin founder Richard Branson and Qualcomm Executive Chairman Paul Jacobs will have seats on the company's board of directors.

Qualcomm's investment in OneWeb is part of the company's bigger interest in being a play of the Internet of Things (IoT), promoting worldwide broadband access to the rest of the world, and (unsaid) being able to sell more chips for new users and applications.

Virgin's participation is both altruistic and practical. Branson truly believes in improving the world, citing statistics from the ITU that more than half the world's population currently lacks Internet access.  However, he also brags of Virgin Galactic having "the biggest order ever" for putting satellites into space. No doubt Virgin will make money somewhere along the line for providing satellite telecommunications services, but there's also some money and/or stock shuffling between investing in a satellite company and turning around to booking orders on Virgin Galactic to launch them.

Showmanship is also involved. Virgin's air-launched LauncherOne is able to put up to 225 kilograms into Low Earth Orbit. A OneWeb satellite weighs in at around 125 kilograms, so maybe you tinker things to get two OneWebs onto a single LauncherOne flight. Reports put the list price of LauncherOne at $10 million – a very expensive way to put a lot of satellites into orbit. Not to mention the more extended math of the number of flights that might be conducted and assumptions you fly perfect – don't lose any – across all those flights.

Did I mention that LauncherOne hasn't flown a single time yet, either in test or for a customer? It is also dependent upon the same infrastructure used for Virgin Galactic's manned suborbital SpaceShip Two, so Virgin will have to juggle between putting up its backlog of paying wanna-be astronaut customers, suborbital research flights and putting OneWeb satellites into orbit.

Given Virgin's extended development for its suborbital program, I'm not convinced that LauncherOne is going to be lofting a significant fraction of OneWeb's satellites any time in the near future. The bulk of the satellites will most likely go up on SpaceX (News - Alert)'s Falcon 9 and possible Orbital Science Corporation vehicles. 

Edited by Maurice Nagle