OneWeb — fresh off launching its first batch of satellites — has pulled in another huge round of funding as it seeks to build a worldwide internet system delivered from space.
On Monday, the seven-year-old startup announced that it had just raised $1.25 billion, bringing its total investment to date to $3.4 billion. SoftBank Group Corp, Grupo Salinas, Qualcomm Technologies Inc and the Government of Rwanda led the latest round, while Virgin Group, Coca-Cola and Airbus are existing investors. “We are committed to bridging the digital divide, and this funding helps ensure our globally shared dream will soon become a reality,” said Greg Wyler, the founder of OneWeb, in a statement.
Last month, a rocket blasted off from a spaceport along the coast in French Guiana, carrying six of OneWeb’s satellites. Starting around October, OneWeb expects to launch 30 or so more satellites every month as it looks to build a constellation of 650 satellites in low Earth orbit. The satellites will beam down high-speed internet service to antennas placed on everything from planes and cruise ships to schools, emergency centres and homes. The company’s goal is to provide a globe-encompassing internet system that carries fast connections to people in remote places who can’t be reached by fibre-optic cables today.
A number of companies have similar aspirations, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Telesat and LeoSat, although OneWeb appears to be in the lead for now. The company has obtained valuable spectrum rights for its service and has invested in low-cost antennas that can receive the signals from its satellites. “OneWeb has extended its first-mover advantage and is on track to become the world’s largest and first truly global communications network,” said Marcelo Claure, chief operating officer of SoftBank Group, in a statement.
OneWeb is mass producing satellites for less than $1 million each and has activated its systems in time to maintain crucial rights to spectrum, Wyler said in an email. “We are achieving everything we set out to do,’’ he said.
A large chunk of the recent funding will go toward OneWeb’s satellite factory in Florida. The facility is tasked with building two satellites a day, which is an incredibly fast pace for an industry where companies are used to making that many systems per quarter. OneWeb’s satellites are about the size of a washing machine, compared to car-sized models typically used for this type of communications work. They also fly much closer to the Earth – 750 miles – than existing systems, which are typically more than 20,000 miles away.
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While OneWeb has raised a ton of capital, many people in the communications and aerospace industries remain skeptical of the money-making potential of a space internet system. Historically, these types of projects have ended badly for investors, and all of the current space internet players still need to prove key pieces of their technology work in order for their services to be viable. Beyond that, the rocket industry will need to increase its number of launches per year dramatically to meet the demand currently proposed by the satellite companies — no small feat.