MOUNTAIN VIEW, California — OneWeb Executive Chairman Greg Wyler on Oct. 3 said his mega-constellation of 150-kilogram satellites was on schedule to launch its first 10 prototypes next year and that the Russian Soyuz rocket that will perform the task had already arrived at the European spaceport in French Guiana.
He said the constellation, mainly intended to wholesale broadband capacity worldwide, will sell directly to consumers.
“Direct-to-consumer will be a big part of what we’re doing,” he said. “We set pretty high goals but we are getting to a billion subscribers by 2025. These are big numbers but we are going to make it really easy to install and really affordable.”
Industry observers have said OneWeb’s core business goal — provide internet to the poorest communities in the world — is not an obvious base on which to build a profitable business.
Cash-flow positive? “Yes!”
Asked whether OneWeb would ever be cash-flow positive, he said: “Yes!”
Asked who pays for the service, he said:
“If you hit the price points, the ability to pay is not an issue. I meet [developing country] ministers at schools, you see 20 computers, all shut down, very slow, no one uses them, and they are paying $3,000 a month, $750 a month. The problem isn’t the ability to pay, it is the price point and the service quality.”
OneWeb is the only one of the broadband mega-constellations to have progressed to full-scale capital spending. Wyler showed multiple photos of hardware construction.
“We’ve been getting our dispensers ready, our rockets ready. We’re going on a pretty big campaign. We’ll be launching every 21 days for about two years, across multiple sites,” he said.
A call for space-debris regulations
Wyler also called for increased government regulatory oversight on space-debris issues, which he said is his “biggest concern, long-term.”
“If you [operate] down low you can de-orbit in two or three years: Fine. But if you’re up high [like OneWeb’s] at 1,200 kilometers, you have 2,700 years of debris if you make a mess. The bite can be real hard if we make a mistake. We’ve had a team looking at space debris since the beginning.”
OneWeb’s first 10 broadband internet connectivity satellites are under construction at Airbus Defense and Space’s facility in Toulouse, France. These would be tested in orbit for several months before Russian Soyuz rockets begin launching around 35 satellites at a time from Russian launch bases.
“We’ve been getting our dispensers ready, our rockets ready,” Wyler said. “We’ll be launching every 21 days for about two years, across multiple sites.”
Florida plant to be operational at year’s end
After the first 10 are built in Toulouse, almost all of the remaining 700-plus satellites would be built at two production lines under construction in Exploration Park, Florida. Wyler said the plant may be delayed a bit from its planned opening at the end of this year, but that it had come through recent storms unscathed.
Construction of gateways around the world is also under way, he said, and the OneWeb Network Operating Center, in Virginia, had recently conducted its first full simulation of a OneWeb launch. A mirror facility will be built in Britain. OneWeb is formally headquartered in Britain’s Channel Islands.
Wyler said securing insurance for the constellation’s launch and early operations is “an issue we seem to have overcome. We are not trying to push [technological] boundaries. In fact we want to push as few boundaries as possible.”
Underwriters meeting to assemble OneWeb insurance policy
Insurance officials said recently that a large meeting of underwriters, brokers and OneWeb representatives is scheduled the week of Oct. 2 in Toulouse.
OneWeb is also still negotiating with France’s export-credit agency, Bpifrance, formerly named Coface, on a facility to finance the OneWeb project alongside its initial strategic investors and, more recently, SoftBank of Japan.
“We were very fortunate to have SoftBank’s investment,” Wyler said. “We’ll be spending an enormous amount of money on a system. We were able to massively increase the spend rate and massively increase our vision and ambitions, which were chained up behind the bars of not enough capital, to be able to bridge the digital divide fully by 2027. That means everybody in the world having access to the internet.”
Estimates of the OneWeb capital costs of more than $3.5 billion have not been confirmed by the company in recent months.
Wyler’s focus on space debris in his address here at the Satellite Innovation Symposium was unexpected, and he detailed some of the design tradeoffs that OneWeb has confronted to meet debris-mitigation guidelines.
He applauded the recent letter by two U.S. senators asking the Federal Communications Commission to organize an interagency regulatory regime to mitigate debris:
One reason the constellation does not have laser inter-satellite links, he said, is that the silicon carbide that would be used in these laser terminals is resistant to heat and cold — a nice feature in operations, but not if a satellite is descending through the atmosphere with a piece of silicon carbide that might survive reentry.
He said the tradeoff between chemical and electric propulsion was also complicated insofar as chemical propulsion has an advantage in permitting quicker collision-avoidance maneuvers.
Electric propulsion and collision-avoidance maneuvers
Chemical gives you a better delta-v to move your spacecraft around and avoid objects,” he said. “As we move to electrical propulsion as an industry, our ability to maneuver is reduced dramatically. We have very small amounts of force over a long period of time.
“It’s like a hippo ice-skating at 15,000 miles an hour. Tell it to take a left and it just doesn’t do that. The use of electric has been great from a mass perspective, but it adds to the challenge of space debris so we need to leave more room between spacecraft to account for the time it takes to maneuver your spacecraft.
“Our satellites are pushing the limit — 13 kilograms per gigabit per second. No other system is near that. Our next satellites, which we haven’t launched, are two orders of magnitude beyond that using that metric.”