The fall of OneWeb came fast and in a matter of days. Recently, Via Satellite spoke with a OneWeb insider to talk about the events that led up to the company entering into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection late Friday, March 27, in one of the biggest stories in the satellite sector this year.
The story had all the elements of a TV drama. The insider told us that even during the week of SATELLITE, OneWeb’s executive team were confident that everything would be OK. However, that optimism proved to be short lived.
The week of SATELLITE 2020 was a dramatic week for many reasons. The show was shut down a day early after the District of Columbia declared a state of emergency on March 11 as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold around the globe. For OneWeb, it would be a week that would define its future.
Via Satellite’s source said OneWeb was due to close a funding round that week, and blamed its failure on the pandemic.
“This was when President Trump shut the U.S. border and the market started to plunge. ... We were due to close a round at a board meeting on Thursday, March 12 of SATELLITE. At that board meeting, Softbank told us they could not proceed with the round. What we then proposed was a short-term emergency funding to get us through COVID, and then to reassess what this means as the markets pickup. That was the plan.”
OneWeb would go on to launch another batch of 34 satellites on Saturday, March 21. The satellites were successfully launched aboard a Soyuz launch vehicle from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan. Liftoff occurred on at 17:06 UTC. This was the second of its 34 satellite launches in six weeks. However, while the launch went ahead unscathed, a much bigger story was starting to emerge behind the scenes. Even in the week leading up to the launch, OneWeb’s team were confident they still had the backing of Softbank.
A launch is a major event for a satellite operator. While the odds are always good for success, it’s an anxious time as satellites worth millions of dollars have to be placed into orbit. However, this would be a launch unlike any other.
OneWeb executives believed SoftBank had put a decision on ice, and that once a successful launch had taken place, they could get the funding they needed to steer it through the COVID era and through to the other side, and most remained optimistic. But by the time OneWeb’s batch of 34 satellites were launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan, on Saturday, March 21, the company’s fate had been sealed.
Via Satellite’s source said that one hour before the launch, news filtered through that Softbank had decided to pull funding. What should have been a day of celebration turned into a slow death march for the company.
“It was a gut punch to get that call just before the launch. There was a percentage chance that something like that could happen. You go into shock mode and start making plans,” the insider said.
The clock was now ticking. OneWeb as a company was incredibly capital intensive and burned through money quickly, millions of dollars each month. Softbank’s dramatic decision to pull out now left the executive team with only days to try and figure out alternative solutions.
Via Satellite’s source said the executive committee frantically tried to find an alternative funding package just to try and keep payroll going and keep the company afloat. The thought of Chapter 11 had been anticipated, but it wasn’t Plan A. By March 26, the inevitable had arrived and the company prepared to enter into Chapter 11, ending two weeks of turmoil.
There had been rumors for a number of months that OneWeb was in trouble. Despite repeated assurances at trade shows, those whispers never went away. But the company’s official explanation for the Chapter 11 filing blamed the financial impact of COVID-19 for its inability to close the investment round, and the insider Via Satellite spoke to agrees.
The source said, “As extraordinary as it sounds, without COVID, I think we would have closed that funding round above $2 billion the Thursday of SATELLITE week and we would have been moving ahead. What we have to remember is that the global crisis, the supply chain for our satellites would have effectively stopped. The energy, cruise and aviation [In-Flight Connectivity] IFC markets would have stopped. But, the money would have been in the bank. We would have to re-adjust timelines in terms of going to market. That would have diminished metrics of the business plan and rate of return, because your cash is being spent on your profile, rather than the return. I think the business could have coped with a 12-month slip.”
Softbank had been a high-profile backer of OneWeb since the beginning. Masayoshi Son, the founder and CEO of the company, had developed a strong working relationship with Greg Wyler, OneWeb’s founder in the beginning. The timeline of OneWeb’s recent financing issues really began in December of last year. OneWeb had been due to close a fundraising round in December 2019. It was at this point, the company realized that its cash reserves were rapidly diminishing and the company was now moving to a “Plan B,” according to Via Satellite’s source. But, despite this, the team didn't know of the trouble to come.
“I wouldn’t say at that time that anyone thought we were in trouble. Softbank had been with us the whole way. There was regular dialog with them through board meetings and calls and so forth. There was a strong dialog all the way. The merger of T-Mobile/Sprint was protracted as well,” Via Satellite’s source said. “We weren’t seeing any changes on the behalf of Softbank in terms of their attitude towards OneWeb. If that had been the case, we could have abandoned the financing round, and put the company up for sale or looked at a strategic divestment. We were full speed on the funding round right up until the week of the SATELLITE show. Things were looking very good. We thought there was a path forward.”
Softbank announced on March 23 that it planned to sell as much as $41 billion in assets in order to purchase its own shares, which were dropping over concerns about the pandemic, The New York Times reported.
There appears no lingering animosity towards Softbank. “I haven’t met one OneWeb employee that was angry with Softbank. They did everything they could, and even went above and beyond. Softbank has a lot of irons in the fire. Subsequently, you have seen them pull back from the WeWork restructuring deal. I think people were saying that if they restructured WeWork, how could they not do that with OneWeb. Everyone in our company felt our business was on more solid ground than WeWork. If Softbank had doubled down on WeWork, we would have thought they would have done this with us,” the insider said.
At SATELLITE 2020, Elon Musk joked that one of the goals of Starlink was not to end up in bankruptcy. That flippant remark underscored a remarkable run of failures in the industry. LEOs are very capital intensive because of the number of satellites and number of launches needed, as well as strong investments needed in the ground architecture. To launch a LEO business, a lot of money is needed up front, and that is a significant challenge.
The insider said that Softbank's investment allowed the company to progress to the point of 74 satellites in orbit. “The good news for OneWeb was Softbank. Without Softbank, we would have not existed. It was really Softbank. Without the commitment of a partner like that, you wouldn’t exist," they said.
The source said the list of LEO constellation failures shows how difficult it is to close the business case on such a venture. "LeoSat had some satellite operator equity there, but they didn’t have enough. O3b was a different time. If you look at mPOWER, that is built by SES, which has a cash generative business. Will Telesat get there? Potentially — their design is very expensive. It is very exclusive and has lots of features which were scoped from OneWeb,” Via Satellite’s source said.
The insider thinks the operator’s legacy will be the groundbreaking changes it made in the industry, particularly with waveform modems.
“The bit that no one gets about OneWeb — and this maybe has to do with the fact that OneWeb did not market this very strongly — is that if you are just using a Newtec or iDirect modem or Gilat, the ability to manage network traffic is quite limited. If you bring in a waveform like LTE, you can do a lot more with quality of service metrics. You can price your service in a much more sophisticated manner. You can offer services to schools at a very low-cost rate. It is harder to do on a [Geostationary] GEO satellite with a more traditional TDMA modem. None of the pundits out there have really thought about it,” the source said.
“The LTE waveform is so adaptable. That is a big gamechanger that nobody spotted. A lot of satellite operators, like telcos, are using legacy operating systems to work with customers. OneWeb was building something brand new from scratch. The whole business was completely digital. Everything was done in the cloud. That was a big step.”
The big question now is what happens next with OneWeb. Via Satellite understands from a number of sources, a lot is going on behind the scenes right now. There is potentially strong interest from Eutelsat, and a Chinese telecoms company is in the running. There are U.S. bidders for the system also. Things are heating up. The U.K. government could also get involved as it looks to protect a flagship U.K. space asset. The next chapter of the OneWeb story could be as equally as fascinating as what has gone on before. VS