Following the successful launch and deployment of the first six satellites in a planned constellation of hundreds, OneWeb has raised $1.25 billion in funding to kickstart mass production. It’s a powerful endorsement of and ambitious plan to create an entirely new layer of global connectivity.
To blanket the world in internet, OneWeb means to send up about 650 satellites at first, with a few hundred more later to expand and reinforce coverage. The original schedule has slipped considerably, as is expected in pretty much any space endeavor, but last month’s test launch means they’re ready to move to the next phase: mass manufacture and deployment.
“With the recent successful launch of our first six satellites, near-completion of our innovative satellite manufacturing facility with our partner Airbus, progress towards fully securing our ITU priority spectrum position, and the signing of our first customer contracts, OneWeb is moving from the planning and development stage to deployment of our full constellation,” said CEO Adrian Steckel in a press release.
It isn’t cheap filling low Earth orbit with satellites, though. OneWeb’s craft currently cost about a million dollars each, which, when combined with all the other costs of launch and administration, quickly add up to the point where even a three-comma round doesn’t cover things. (The company’s total raised is now $3.4 billion.)
But those costs should come down as the company moves to a more efficient manufacturing platform: its own special facility, built with partner Airbus. Part of the cash will be going to putting the finishing touches on that and getting it up to speed.
The current plan is to get enough birds in the air (at a rate of about 30 per monthly launch) to demo connections next year, then offer limited commercial service in 2021. And OneWeb already has its first customer: Talia, a telecom serving Africa and the Middle East.
Of course, OneWeb isn’t without competitors. SpaceX is perhaps the most visible, and plans a constellation of thousands, though with only a pair of prototypes in orbit it’s considerably far behind in logistics. And it may not be able to spare many rockets for its own purposes if it wants to remain solvent for its grander schemes of interplanetary travel and Mars colonization.
Swarm Technologies is aiming for an ultra-low-cost solution, and Ubiquitilink is leveraging new IP to bring satellite connections directly to existing phones — which may end up coexisting with the other satcom and terrestrial telecoms. Who knows? It’s something of an open field right now.
That said, the powers that be are definitely putting a lot of their chips on OneWeb, which has a great team, powerful partners and a big lead on the competition. This $1.25 billion round was led by SoftBank (which telegraphed its continuing investment at the time of the launch), with participation by Grupo Salinas, Qualcomm and the government of Rwanda.