OneWeb Wants to Build Space-Based Internet

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OneWeb wants to challenge SpaceX to provide rural broadband worldwide using satellites. The company launched the first six satellites last week — a key step towards a planned constellation of nearly 2,000. “The ultimate goal is to connect every school in the world, and bridge the digital divide,” said company founder Greg Wyler.

But others have tried to build an internet backbone in space and failed, such as Teledesic, founded by Bill Gates, wireless executive Craig McCaw, and a Saudi prince in the 1990s. That venture cost billions and failed, according to The Washington Post

Attempts by Iridium and Globalstar ended in bankruptcy.

Consultant Bryce Space and Technology CEO Carissa Christensen calls the OneWeb concept “deeply compelling,” however she adds the business case is “highly uncertain.” The key question, she said: “Can they deliver a product that competes and wins?”

In addition to connecting rural areas, Wyler says, the internet in space would allow better connectivity on airplanes and ships.  

Even if OneWeb meets the technical challenges, receives regulatory approvals and enters the market, other companies, like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are vying for the same market. Late last year, the FCC approved SpaceX’s plan to launch as many as 12,000 satellites, Inside Towers reported. The company is raising $500 million and received a $1 billion investment from Google and Fidelity in 2015, according to The Washington Post.

Wyler says technology has improved since past attempts and One Web is raising money through partnerships with Airbus, as well as investments from Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, Coca-Cola, SoftBank and Qualcomm. He says the company has raised over $2 billion.

OneWeb’s constellation would be made up of small satellites that would orbit the earth and connect to ground-based antennas. It already has some in Italy, Canada and Norway, and plans to launch more later this year, according to Wyler.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai supports the concept. “Satellite technology can help Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach,” he said in a statement last year. “And it can offer more competition where terrestrial internet access is already available.”  Comments? Email Us.

March 5, 2019

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