Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Greg Wyler reports OneWeb progress

Think about the possibility of a WiFi network with a low-latency, 50 mbps back-haul link to the Internet in every school or rural clinic in the world.

I've been tracking Greg Wyler and Elon Musk's satellite Internet projects for some time. Both have been relatively quiet (most of what I know of Musk's SpaceX project came from an unauthorized cell phone video of a recruiting talk he gave), but Wyler talked about his company OneWeb in a keynote at the Satellite 2015 Conference yesterday.

Wyler plans a constellation of about 650 satellites in low-earth orbit (about 1,200 kilometers). He said that they plan to launch satellites in 2017 and hope to begin offering service in 2019. (It seems that OneWeb is ahead of the SpaceX schedule).

They will offer 50 mbps, 30 ms latency connectivity to $250 ground stations that will also serve as hot-spots, providing WiFi, LTE, 3G or 2G connectivity.

As shown below, a terrestrial route between Los Angeles and the tip of Chile requires 14 hops. The same route via satellite may require only five low-latency hops. (The figure is drawn to scale).

Think about the possibility of a WiFi network with a low-latency, 50 mbps back-haul link to the Internet in every school or rural clinic in the world.

Wyler showed a prototype of one of his ground-stations and also showed how easy it is to set up. The operator just spreads the solar panels and turns it on -- five seconds install time. Here we see one on the corrugated roof of a building:

This ease of deployment would be terrific for establishing ad hoc communication in the wake of disasters that had disrupted terrestrial communication.

While I have focused on OneWeb's primary goal of providing Internet connectivity in developing nations and rural areas, Wyler also spoke of providing connectivity in aircraft (and ships at sea).

Of course, all of this is speculation for now. Some conference attendees and presenters were skeptical about Wyler's project, pointing out that his low-cost satellites would have to be replaced every five years or so -- a recurring expense. Critics also pointed out that much of the time, the low-earth orbit satellites will be over oceans, polar regions and other sparsely populated areas.

That being said, Wyler has been able to attract backers and partners, each of which brings money and expertise to the table:
Like a modern Internet company that follows the dictum "do what you do best and link to the rest," OneWeb will focus on the backbone and market through local retail Internet service and cell phone providers.

One can also imagine OneWeb providing competition for conventional terrestrial ISPs in developed nations. I can dream of going over to Best Buy, picking up a OneWeb ground station, installing it on my roof and escaping the clutches of my ISP monopolist Time Warner Cable. I am not holding my breath till that happens, but I will be keeping my eye on OneWeb's ambitious project.

For some background on Wyler's previous satellite company, O3B Networks, and more on his plans for OneWeb, check out this video:

Update 3/20/2015

FierceWirelessTech interview of Greg Wyler.

Wyler says "We've got a pretty clear path. It's not just a technology problem. It is a technology, regulatory, implementation, education problem. It's kind of a little bit of everything." In the interview, he talks about terminal design, their business model and spectrum.

As mentioned above, he stresses ease of installation and low cost for the terminals. OneWeb has the rights to the Ku and Ka spectrum they will use and patent-pending technology to assure non-interference with geo-stationary satellites in those bands. Scale is critical to their business model -- once the constellation is operating, they marginal cost of a new customer is very low.