Another consumer-grade, Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite constellation designed to connect billions of unconnected people has slipped through our fingers. This time, it wasn’t a scrappy underdog story, or a brilliant concept on paper, or a garage-stored prototype. It was a company launched to much fanfare by one of the most recognized visionaries in our community.
After building a shack and mounting an antenna on it in less than 12 minutes on stage at SATELLITE 2015, Greg Wyler launched OneWeb into our industry’s consciousness. In what seemed like a matter of minutes, he raised close to $3 billion from a consortium led by what was widely considered to be one of the world’s most forward-thinking investment firms – SoftBank – and including big brand names like Airbus, Coca-Cola, Qualcomm and Intelsat. Today, OneWeb is floating on just enough SoftBank cash to carry it through an asset sale this summer.
At first glance in hindsight (from the perspective of more of an industry watcher), the path from boom to bankruptcy seemed to be a short one, with a sharp turn south toward the red. There were certainly some dramatic episodes along the way, sure. Massive constellations can’t be launched without a little bit of drama. Have you read John Bloom’s “Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story”? Do you know what Iridium went through in the ‘90s? Drama comes with the territory. Even Elon Musk, who is now clearly in the best position to pull off a global consumer-grade constellation with Starlink, says that not going bankrupt is what keeps him up at night.
OneWeb was different, though. They were launching, the constellation was coming together. Just before the bankruptcy filing, OneWeb celebrated launching its 74th satellite into orbit. But with the COVID-19 outbreak, the operator’s entire financial structure seemed to shatter like a stone through a mirror.
Did the coronavirus singlehandedly bring down what was shaping up to be one of our community’s leading global satellite operators? No, but it provided adequate cover. Those of us who would normally spend time trying to find the answer to this question were focused exclusively on staying healthy and employed. Now that some of us have settled, somewhat, into our life in quarantine, we can take a deep breath and take a closer look at the OneWeb story. At a second glance in hindsight, the red flags start to become a little clearer.
The most vocal critics of the constellation business model base their argument around the very simple fact that it costs too much money to make money. A constellation requires considerable investment (and a little luck) in R&D, market research, hardware, software, space systems, launching, and ground infrastructure. That’s not counting your legal/regulatory, workforce, and insurance costs. On top of that, you have to appear outwardly concerned about space debris. So, you have to invest time in solving two problems at one – the problem of connecting the unconnected, and the new problem you’re causing by launching a billion satellites to do so.
OneWeb seemed to have the money in place to overcome half of these challenges, but some of the technological and business-related challenges required partnerships. OneWeb landed a solid space systems manufacturing partner with Airbus, yet struggled to find the same kind of relationship with a ground systems partner. There were rumors last summer that the company developed an extremely low-cost antenna module in house. That would have been great if it happened three years ago. What happened to the antenna that Wyler put on that shack back in 2015?
Another warning sign may have been that rocky relationship with Intelsat. The two companies lived through their own dramatic trilogy. Intelsat put up $25 million as part of the original consortium that supported OneWeb. Not long after, Intelsat bondholders prevented a merger that could have been worth $13 billion. The failure put a lot of stress on both organizations. This eventually led to lawsuits. Intelsat announced one lawsuit against OneWeb shortly after the constellation operator announced a maritime market partnership with Iridium. You could feel the anger dripping from Intelsat’s announcement of the legal action.
At the time the lawsuit was announced, I didn’t give much thought to the fact that OneWeb and Intelsat both shared office space in McLean, Virginia – in fact, in the very same building, right across the street from Iridium. These three organizations were like severely mismatched studio apartment roommates sending passive aggressive reminders to clean up the sink on Post-it notes. How could OneWeb truly succeed if it was constantly in legal squabbles with its peers and investors?
One could also question OneWeb’s leadership and whether or not the operator could have benefited from Greg Wyler’s sustained presence. After the initial investment consortium was announced, Wyler seemed to slowly fade into the background. Eric Beranger was CEO for a short spell, followed by Adrian Steckel, who was more well-known in telco circles and a relatively new face to the satellite industry. Regardless of who populated the C-suite, Wyler was always considered to be the face of OneWeb. Toward the end, he just wasn’t active enough in reassuring investors that OneWeb was on its way and the silence was deafening.
Last, but certainly not least – signs of trouble at SoftBank started to become quite clear when investors raised alarm about losses in its Vision Fund. The Vision Fund was financially supporting companies that were developing applications supported by next-gen technologies like robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Unfortunately, while the leaders of those companies knew exactly how to spend money on the “brainstorming process,” none knew how and when to emerge from that process with a viable business model. In the end, SoftBank is left with an expensive, flaming pile of mediocre startups.
All of this, plus the coronavirus, makes a lot more sense — but doesn’t paint the whole picture. We can blame OneWeb’s demise on a number of factors. We only know for certain that the warning signs were there. I have the good fortune of having a job that allows me to root for everyone in the satellite game. While being neutral is good for the soul, it also allows one to give in to optimism.
I feel a genuine sense of excitement whenever these constellations leap from blueprint to launch-pad. I was genuinely excited for OneWeb, and the accomplishments of its incredibly talented staff. The constellation is brilliant engineering in need of some TLC from a more stable caretaker. I hope that whoever acquires the remains of OneWeb will be able to put both the existing satellites and the people who spent their workweeks trying to realize Greg Wyler’s vision back to work. VS