Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Satellite Internet update -- Airbus will make satellites for OneWeb

OneWeb and SpaceX are using different technologies and have different organizational strategies.

Two companies, OneWeb and SpaceX, are in competition to offer global Internet access and backhaul over constellations of low-earth orbit satellites. (A third company, Leosat, plans to focus on high-end business and government organizations).

Unlike SpaceX, OneWeb is working with a team of investors and partners. Five companies bid for the contract to build OneWeb's satellites and Airbus won. They will build 900 150-kilogram satellites, 648 of which will be used in OneWeb's initial, near-polar orbit constellation, as shown in this animated video:

The Airbus announcement raises a lot of questions, that are addressed in a terrific in-depth interview of
Brian Holz, OneWeb’s Director of Space Systems
. Holz talks about the reasons for producing the satellites in the US and the factors in choosing a factory location, the cost of the satellites ($4-500,000 each), the need to have global participation in a global project, launch services, satellite reliability and plans for eventually deorbiting them, financing and the business case, the search for manufacturers of millions of user terminals and antennas, etc.

Brian Holz, OneWeb’s Director of Space Systems

Holz and CEO Greg Wyler have experience -- they were together at O3b Networks, which is already delivering industrial-scale connectivity using medium-orbit satellites -- and are worthy competitors for Elon Musk's SpaceX effort. While seeking the same goal -- global connectivity -- OneWeb and SpaceX are using different technologies and have different organizational strategies.

SpaceX plans to have around 4,000 smaller, cheaper, shorter-lived satellites orbiting at only 645 kilometers. SpaceX will also keep more of the project in-house than OneWeb. OneWeb is becoming a coordinated coalition of partners. Virgin Galactic, Qualcomm, Honeywell Aerospace and Rockwell Collins are already on board and Airbus will not be a mere supplier, but a partner in a joint venture, which will include others for finance and marketing as well as technology.

Both projects are extremely ambitious, expensive and risky. I don't know which, if either, will "win," but the best possible outcome would be for both to succeed and compete with each other and with terrestrial ISPs.

I worry about the problems of capitalism with its massive concentration of power and income inequality, but this is an example of capitalism at its best.

Update 6/25/2015

OneWeb founder Greg Wyler announced that they have received $500 million in funding from a group that includes Airbus and is seeking to raise that much or more in their next round of funding. Previously announced partners Qualcomm (communication technology) and Virgin Glactic (launch services) are also investors.

Their plan will require an estimated $2-2.5 billion, and it does not seem they will have trouble raising it. I'd like a few shares myself :-).

OneWeb founder Greg Wyler

Update 4/19/2016

SpaceX has (rightfully) been in the news lately because they succeeded in recovering a booster rocket by landing it on a barge at sea. If they can do that consistently, it will dramatically lower the cost of their plan to offer Internet service using a constellation of low-earth orbit satellites.

But, let's not forget OneWeb -- they are also making steady progress toward their own constellation of Internet service satellites. OneWeb just announced that they (in a joint venture with Airbus) will build a factory to mass produce small satellites near NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (SpaceX is also designing satellites suitable for mass production).

One Web plans to place Internet satellites in 18 orbital planes at an altitude of 1,100 kilometers. They plan to build about 900 of these 150-kilogram satellites -- 720 for use and the rest spares -- at a cost of $500,000 each. (See the animation above).

They will also build satellites for other customers at the new plant and they hope to be able to launch up to 36 satellites on a single flight.

Update 12/19/2016

The Japanese conglomerate Softbank is investing $1 billion in OneWeb, giving them a 40% share of the company. They are joining Richard Branson, Qualcomm, Airbus and others as OneWeb participants.

OneWeb and Elon Musk's SpaceX are both planning to launch constellations of Internet service satellites, but OneWeb is doing so in conjunction with technical and financial partners, while SpaceX is building their own satellite and launch technology.

I hope they both succeed, giving us an oligopoly rather than a monopoly. Regardless, a global Internet Service Provider presents difficult regulatory questions.

Click here for more on OneWeb and Internet service satellites.

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