Greg Wyler was visiting the satellite operations center, located improbably in a Tysons, Va., high-rise, to pump up the team, to tell them the moment has come. Smiling and radiating a childlike energy, Wyler gushed earlier this month that the system they’ve built is “amazing,” that they are “going to democratize space.”
“It’s a huge step forward for space, a step forward for the world,” he said to applause.
After years, Wyler’s dream to beam the Internet from space to remote corners of the world is finally here, he said. On Wednesday afternoon, the first six of his company’s satellites were launched from a remote launch site in French Guiana, a key step toward building out a constellation that could eventually reach nearly 2,000.
If Wyler’s plans are successful, what he and his fellow executives at OneWeb envision is nothing short of revolutionary: becoming one of the world’s largest providers of Internet service by building the architecture in space, allowing the billions without access to WiFi to finally use the Web. Wyler founded the British-based company in 2012.
“The ultimate goal is to connect every school in the world, and bridge the digital divide,” Wyler said in an interview after his pep talk. “We’re bringing connectivity and enabling it for people around the world, and in rural populations.”
If successful, remote areas all over the world, from Alaska to Africa, that are out of reach of fiber optic cables could suddenly join the world of Google and YouTube, a feat Wyler and others believe could be transformative.
But building the backbone of the Internet in orbit is no easy task. Others have tried to put up constellations of communications satellites, only to fail spectacularly. The enormous cost is only outmatched by the risks of putting up hundreds of spacecraft in orbit.
There are plenty of business school case studies of past failure, such as Teledesic, a company funded by Bill Gates in the mid-1990s, wireless executive Craig McCaw and a Saudi prince that failed after costs soared into the billions. Attempts by Iridium and Globalstar, which both ended up in bankruptcy, also illustrate how difficult the endeavor can be.
“OneWeb’s concept of ubiquitous global broad band is deeply compelling,” said Carissa Christensen, the chief executive of Bryce Space and Technology, a consulting company. “However, the underlying business case for OneWeb is still highly uncertain, and I’ve not yet seen a persuasive plan that fully closes.”
The key question, she said: “Can they deliver a product that competes and wins?”
Even if OneWeb can meet the technical challenges, get the regulatory approvals and break into the market, or expand it, there are others gunning to do the same thing.
Namely, Elon Musk.
His rocket company, SpaceX, is also vying to put up a constellation of satellites, known as Starlink, a project that it has been unusually quiet about. Late last year, the Federal Communications Commission granted SpaceX permission to put up its huge constellation, which could eventually have as many as 12,000 satellites. SpaceX is raising $500 million for the project, and in 2015, received a $1 billion investment from Google and Fidelity.
Wyler, who founded another satellite company, called O3b, said he was “mindful of failure.” But ever the optimist, he said his team was “super focused on success.”
Technology has improved since past failed attempts, as has demand in a growing digital economy. And the investment money has poured in. Over the years, OneWeb has won the support of several major investors, including a partnership with Airbus, as well as investments from Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, Coca-Cola, SoftBank, Qualcomm and others. Wyler won’t say precisely how much the company has raised but that it’s “well over $2 billion. The interest level is at an all-time high because all of a sudden it’s real.”
OneWeb’s constellation would be made up of relatively small satellites, about the size of a refrigerator, that would zoom around the Earth connecting to stations on the ground.
The company has ground-based antennas installed in several countries, including Italy, Canada and Norway, and plans to launch satellites on a monthly basis starting later in the year. It also stresses that it has the spectrum it needs for its mission.
Despite the risks, the constellations have the support of Ajit Pai, chairman of the FCC.
“Satellite technology can help Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach,” he said in a statement last year. “And it can offer more competition where terrestrial Internet access is already available.”
And while the ultimate goal is driven by altruism — the desire to bridge the digital divide within a decade — there is a robust business case to make, Wyler said. The Internet in space would allow for better connectivity on airplanes and ships. Businesses with major distribution centers around the world could better manage their shipments.
“There are big industries to service,” he said. “If you look at it from a purely financial viewpoint, and you say, ‘Okay, we have 7, 8 trillion dollars’ worth of economy that is not participating because half the world is not on the grid. They could trade with us. They could be buying our goods.' ”