WASHINGTON — Startup broadband satellite constellation operator OneWeb said maritime and aeronautical applications will be its biggest moneymakers early on, followed by government applications as the company focuses on vertical markets before turning to its headline mission of connecting the world’s poor.
In a recurring theme at OneWeb, Chief Executive Adrian Steckel the company has to assure profitability before taking on the more-noble task of fitting rural schools with broadband access.
“Most of the people [at OneWeb] are here to fulfill that mission of [founder] Greg Wyler, but the argument I have with him and others is that: Yes we will do that but we have to have a business that allows us to expand.
“We’re focused on a diversified set of revenues,” Steckel said May 6 here at the Satellite 2019 conference. “Consumer broadband certainly will play a role in our mission, but we have to dial that back to make sure we can do it.”
OneWeb recently hired Dylan Browne, formerly of Comsat and Airbus Defence and Space, to head its government business unit.
OneWeb has been meeting with U.S. Defense Department officials to try to shift their attention on what a competitor like SpaceX with its Starlink broadband satellite constellation might one day do, to what OneWeb will be able to do in 2021.
OneWeb has raised a total of $3.4 billion including its most recent funding round of $1.25 billion.
An industry official said the latest round, much of it not in cash, includes:
— $505 million from lead investor Softbank.
— $300 million from Grupo Salinas of Mexico.
— $200 million from Airbus, co-prime contractor of the OneWeb satellites.
— $98 million from Qualcomm, providing the wireless air interface and modem.
— $27 million from the government of Rwanda, an early, if anomalous, OneWeb backer.
Steckel declined to say what the latest capex estimate is for the OneWeb system since it reduced its first-generation architecture to 650 satellites. He also did not address debt financing. OneWeb has been seeking export-credit financing from France’s Bpifrance, and industry officials have been saying for months that it’s imminent. But it hasn’t yet been secured.
He reiterated that the latest funding gives the company enough to switch on its Florida production plant at the end of this month, and to be launching satellites on Russian Soyuz rockets on a monthly basis, with each rocket carrying 35 OneWeb satellites, by the end of this year.
“In the overall constellation cost, the launch is costing us a bit more than our satellites,” Steckel said of the 1-billion-euro ($1.12-billion), 21-launch contract with Europe’s Arianespace, which is managing the launches on the Russian rockets, mainly occurring from Russian spaceports. “That cost will come down” with teh general trend toward lower launch costs.
OneWeb will be entering the aeronautical and maritime markets at a time of increasing competition among established satellite operators for these customers. The aeronautical market is highly regulated and commercial airlines are loathe to change technology hardware once they have outfitted their planes.
It is also unclear how OneWeb, whose first generation does not have inter satellite links, will operate over the Pacific Ocean air routes to carry data to and from aircraft.
Steckel said one goal of the second-generation constellation, already in design, is to permit the satellites to communicate with each other to speed the delivery of data to and from Earth stations, and to add steerable beams. OneWeb’s first satellites weigh 150 kilograms each.
He said that once the company completes the goal of having to raise “this crazy mount of money — once you are over that tipping point, you can deploy capital in a very efficient way that’s less expensive, you’ve got all the distribution channels. Our goal for the next 10 years is we think that we will be worth 10s of billions of dollars.”