British start-up OneWeb said Monday it is getting $1 billion from Japan’s Softbank to launch 720 desk-sized satellites into space starting in 2019, where they will orbit the Earth from pole to pole in 18 carefully plotted rings. The satellites are to be assembled at a new high-volume production facility in Exploration Park, Fla., in a joint venture with European aerospace firm Airbus.
Chief executive Greg Wyler has global ambitions for the satellite network. He said the network could deliver high-speed Internet to every school in the world by 2022, and solve the so-called “digital divide” between Internet haves and have nots by 2027.
“What that means is anybody anywhere should have access to the Internet on a GDP-adjusted affordable basis,” said Wyler.
His vehicle for this lofty goal is a new satellite design that he says is smaller and cheaper than prevailing models. By compressing satellite parts into more compact chunks, Wyler says his factories will be able to churn out 15 satellites each week at just $600,000 per unit, and maintain many of the capabilities of larger satellites that cost tens of hundreds of millions of dollars each.
OneWeb was founded in 2012 and got early seed funding from Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and has since picked up at least $1.7 billion from investors. The firm set up an Arlington office in the first half of 2016 that has grown into its largest engineering center. The new Florida production facility is estimated create close to 3,000 jobs in the United States in the next four years.
The investment values the firm at $2.5 billion and gives Japan’s SoftBank, a prolific technology investor with a majority stake in telecommunications giant Sprint, a substantial minority ownership stake and a seat on the board. The investment is one of the earliest U.S. outlays of a $50 billion commitment Softbank chief executive Masayoshi Son announced last month, to great fanfare from the president-elect Trump.
The investment was apparently “already in process before they met,” Wyler said.