Low orbit internet satellite company OneWeb, who is backed by celebrity investor and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, announced in early January that it planned to relocate its headquarters to Arlington, Va. The company, along with a team of 32 employees, brought to northern Virginia not just their business but also grand ambitions of launching a constellation of 648 satellites by 2019.
With an eye on 2016, OneWeb plans to hire big, reach lawmakers in Washington and expand operations with the establishment of a network and satellite operations center, said CEO Matt O’Connell.
The now Virginia-based startup, without tons of press attention or a dominant public image, raised an astonishing, absolutely massive $500 million Series A last year from some of the most powerful corporate investors in the world, including money from Qualcomm Incorporated, The Coca-Cola Company and Airbus Group.
In a new interview with DC Inno, O’Connell explained that he hopes to tap into the D.C.-area’s deep talent pool of aerospace and satellite professionals to push his venture forward.
O’Connell, the brain behind OneWeb’s recent rise to stardom and also the founder of satellite imagery company GeoEye (acquired by DigitalGlobe Inc. for $1.3 billion), said that “given the strong investor interest [OneWeb] will probably raise some more capital later this year.”
“We have a long way to go to connect the world”
“While we have the key elements in place: regulatory, technology, launches, satellites, as well as commercial operators in over 50 countries and territories, we have a long way to go to connect the world,” O’Connell told DC Inno.
He added, “we believe that having an office near Washington will help us ensure that US decision makers understand the impact of regulations on OneWeb and encourage them to create rules that allow us to accomplish our important mission of providing access to everyone. The U.S. government generally, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) specifically, play a very important leadership role in satellite communications around the world, so we are glad that we have staff located near Washington.”
But what exactly is OneWeb? How could a local, space-centric company that has raised more than $500 million and sits in our backyard not be in the public spotlight while the likes of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX consistently steal the headlines?
In broad strokes, the company claims that it’s mission is to bring affordable internet to everyone, across the globe, and to provide a connected infrastructure in times of emergency. It aims to do so with low orbit satellites, which hover up in the atmosphere between 100 miles and 1,200 miles and that communicate with small, low-cost user terminals on the Earth. These terminals then emit “LTE, 3G and WiFi to the surrounding areas, providing high-speed access.” The terminals can be either stationary or mounted onto vehicles, bringing a large, mobile internet network to specific regions.
Importantly, it’s necessary to understand that OneWeb doesn’t exactly “provide internet” per say, as much as they “act as an extension of existing networks.”
“Much of the world is already covered by ISPs and mobile operators’ high capacity networks. Our system is designed to extend these networks into rural areas and create affordable connectivity for all. Our small cell terminals and core network will be fully 3GPP compatible, so partner operators will be able to use our infrastructure with their current customers, devices and billing systems,” OneWeb’s website reads.
From a use case scenario standpoint, OneWeb says that its system could be used by emergency personnel in the case of natural disasters, expand in-flight connectivity and bring internet to rural areas.
But perhaps the most prevalent business avenue for the company will come via partnership with the likes of large internet corporations. These partnerships are hinted at through the company’s website, and then explained in short by saying that “partner operators” can leverage OneWeb’s terminals to reach customers.
Meanwhile, OneWeb remains an “early stage” venture even in the face of mass funding, said O’Connell. It’s unclear, but also likely, that OneWeb is operating in a pre-revenue mode.
The firm’s apparent satellite and internet terminal engineering acumen, numerous patents and solid partnerships, among other things, make it valuable in nature. Airbus Group, an investor, is the manufacturing partner that helps build OneWeb’s carefully designed satellites that are both cost effective and lighter in weight, making them easier to launch.
In terms of regulation hurdles and/or other legal obstacles facing the company’s plan to install satellites in space—above numerous sovereign countries, beyond traditional borders—O’Connell said that the legwork has already been done:
“OneWeb has passed the main regulatory hurdle to achieve our mission. The acquisition of spectrum rights through the ITU (International Telecommunication Union). The ITU has treaty based rules in place that allow OneWeb to accomplish our goals on a global basis.Our Ku-band (a frequency in the microwave range that is primarily used for satellite communications) rights give us a strong priority position regarding access to the spectrum we need. This will allow us to confidently build our system without receiving interference from other operators.”