OneWeb has launched the final 36 satellites of its initial 616-satellite “constellation”, allowing the rival of Elon Musk’s Starlink to offer global broadband coverage this year.
“It’s the fruition of an enormous amount of hard work, and obviously we’ve been through some geopolitical issues over the last year or so, and the team has proven to be extremely resilient and caught up,” CEO Neil Masterson said in an interview ahead of the launch, which used space agency Indian Space Research Organisation.
OneWeb now has enough fast-flying spacecraft in orbit to offer broadband to businesses and government customers in the lower 48 US states in May, and ultimately global coverage by the end of 2023, Masterson said.
The launch took place in Sriharikota, an island off the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. It concludes a tumultuous chapter for the satellite venture that was founded a decade ago by serial space entrepreneur Greg Wyler.
The company filed for bankruptcy in March 2020 after being shut out of credit markets by the economic turmoil caused by Covid-19, and was rescued by the UK government and Indian telecommunications tycoon Sunil Mittal’s Bharti Group. It has since attracted investment from SoftBank Group, South Korean conglomerate Hanwha Systems and US firm Hughes Satellite Systems.
Another major shareholder is French satellite firm Eutelsat, which agreed to merge with OneWeb last July pending regulatory clearances and a shareholder vote. The group is vying for a role in a multibillion-euro European Union satellite project dubbed IRIS².
OneWeb has US$900-million in contracted revenues and plans to break even by 2025, Masterson said. The London-based company has also started planning for a second, more sophisticated wave of several hundred extra satellites, which could cost as much as $4-billion and be operational by 2028.
OneWeb expects to send out information to potential “gen 2” suppliers in the second quarter, Masterson added.
The launch is a milestone in a new space race to girdle the Earth with thousands of low-flying spacecraft for broadband, which has sparked deals between existing players.
OneWeb is the second biggest low-Earth orbit or LEO system after Starlink, the fleet operated and launched by billionaire Musk’s SpaceX, which has more than 3 000 satellites in orbit. Amazon.com is planning its own thousands-strong system called Project Kuiper.
Masterson downplayed any rivalry with SpaceX, saying Musk’s firm targets consumers while OneWeb is targeting enterprise and government clients. He’s also a SpaceX customer: OneWeb has used Musk’s rockets to send up its own satellites, after a launch with France’s Arianespace was derailed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. — Thomas Seal, with Bibhudatta Pradhan, (c) 2023 Bloomberg LP