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Wyler: OneWeb ready to solve the ultimate connectivity problem

As the recent failed merger with Intelsat shows, there are likely to be a few twists and turns as one of the most ambitious satellite projects finds its feet and aims to be a lasting force in the satellite industry.

In my latest interview with Greg Wyler, the founder of OneWeb he says the word “mission” no less than 20 times. Sometimes when talking to Wyler you feel like you are talking more to an evangelical preacher than one of the satellite industry’s brightest technology minds, who seems hellbent on his mission of connecting the world.

Devil's Advocate

In many ways, OneWeb is a continuation of O3b Networks. O3b targeted the “other three billion” people on Earth who lack connectivity, and so I ask Wyler whether OneWeb is really just an amped up version of the older company. He says OneWeb will operate at a different scale. “As you gain more experience, you are able to build more and more things simultaneously and have a broader vision of the pieces that go together. I developed OneWeb at a different point in my life and was able to learn from my O3b experiences,” he says. “The mission is also broader and more encompassing so the number of satellites, total throughput, and variety of constellations make it substantially different.”

But is OneWeb really doing what O3b was originally supposed to? It is a provocative question, given some of O3b’s most high profile deals have been with governments and cruise ship operators. “I certainly hoped O3b could solve major connectivity problems, and I think it has. OneWeb is solving a bit of different problem and this mission is deeply embedded with our shareholders. O3b had a lot of complex financing issues, and it didn’t help that the banks and finance markets came to a standstill right in the middle,” Wyler says. “That said, I think the question may understate the positive impact O3b is having on many of the worlds unconnected regions. While O3b has proven extremely useful for cruise ships and government, it also is providing services to many places like the Amazonian region and the Pacific Islands. I am very proud of O3b. While I have no share ownership in O3b anymore, I have a strong affection for it.”

The Mission

With Wyler, it always comes back to the mission, and that mission is to bring about an end to digital inequality, which Wyler believes is the root cause of many of society’s problems. He says OneWeb’s mission synchronizes with that of many of the world’s governments and inter-governmental instructions. “Connectivity is like oxygen for human opportunity, therefore the mission is larger than OneWeb … Our first phase is designed to bring connectivity where others can’t reach. We hope to bridge the digital divide completely by 2027. I should note that OneWeb will look substantially different in 2027. It will evolve a lot from what we have announced. But it will still be the same mission, to help enable the web for everybody.”

Wyler calls it a mission for humanity. He cites the seventeen United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that define health, happiness and welfare for the world’s underprivileged, with internet access fundamental to each and every one of them. “Everything from decent work and economic growth, to good health and well being, to clean water and sanitation — each of these require digital education, digital health or digital government capabilities. Good health and well-being require access to doctors through telemedicine and video conferencing which can only be provided over a low latency high bandwidth communication link,” he says.

Wyler uses the example of Alaska where remote and rural health centers look to make their use of MRIs more efficient. Currently, it takes longer to transmit the MRI files to the hospital in Anchorage then to fly the disc by airplane. So, all of these pieces require communications. Wyler points out that it isn’t only OneWeb that is focused on bringing connectivity. “The unsung heroes are the telecoms companies like Bharti which has provided communications to hundreds of millions of people who otherwise would be without access. However, even with all of their hard work there are still many people left off the internet grid. OneWeb is focused on finishing the problem.”

The Origins of OneWeb

O3b Networks has already been one of the most talked about companies in satellite. It marked the entrance of one of the most dynamic, creative minds the satellite industry has seen in many years. However, once the company joined forces with SES, Wyler was already thinking about his next move. In 2012, he took some time off, and assessed where he wanted to go next. Wyler jokingly calls it his “third retirement phase.” After he retired from O3b, Wyler kept thinking about the world’s unconnected and how O3b, while it was doing some amazing things, was not going to solve the ultimate problem. Wyler stresses that this is not a negative on O3b.

A worker completes tasks manually on the production line at OneWeb Satellite's new facility inauguration.

“O3b is an important part of millions of peoples’ lives today. I wouldn’t say this plagued me, but it was really something so important to humanity and I didn’t see any answers on the horizon. So, I thought a lot about the problem and the solutions. I started to get more interested and focused as more ideas came into my head about how this could be accomplished,” he says. “And then when I checked the ITU filings and saw that this really important piece of spectrum was available … it acted as another catalyst for me to spend more energy on it, and then the vision started to come together. This was in 2012,” he says.

The origins of OneWeb had now been born. The influence of SoftBank and its dynamic CEO Masayoshi Son has also been critical to the hopes and aspirations of OneWeb. “I talk with Masa frequently in terms of where we are with our vision. We are really lucky that they are an investor. I think the world is lucky that they are an investor. With SoftBank’s involvement, we have been able to accelerate towards fulfilling the larger mission. I started out with a clear mission of connecting every school by 2022. And a hope to bridge the digital divide after that. With Masa’s involvement, we have moved from hope to a clear mission.”

Failed Intelsat Deal

Earlier this year the satellite world was bracing itself for a merger between OneWeb and Intelsat, which would have offered an exciting vision of a GEO/LEO future. While there is still a partnership between the two operators, the much talked about merger failed to take place after Intelsat’s bondholders scuppered the deal. Wyler admits he was “surprised” that the bondholders did not accept: “It was a slow boil to reach non-acceptance, as opposed to a one-day notice. It just seemed to be that the deal was not going to get done. They, as a group of unaffiliated bondholders, were not able to come together to accept. You have to remember it is many bondholders who have no relations to each other. It is not one group or person. I was disappointed and I think this would have been very, very good for Intelsat and for the bondholders,” he says.

Wyler says OneWeb looked at the potential deal with Intelsat more opportunistically, and that the key at the time was to keep the OneWeb team focused on building its constellation. “For the core of OneWeb, this was almost a non-event. The team was focused on building the constellation before, during and after, so from that perspective nothing has changed. There are a lot of incredibly talented and focused people at OneWeb and they really want to accomplish our mission — and they stayed focused the whole time,” he says.

Since the deal fell through, there has been plenty of speculation on where OneWeb goes next, and whether a new partnership or combination could be in the works.

While he refuses to confirm or deny discussions, Wyler admits that many companies are interested in partnering or working with OneWeb — particularly GEO operators — and that other companies have also expressed interest in being acquired by OneWeb.

“One way of looking at the GEO market is by the number of new GEO satellite orders. How firm and convinced are the GEO operators are in their own investments? Are they pushing in heavy or are they backing off? I think there is an appreciation that our system is becoming more real, and it will be a step function increase in performance both in terms of latency and throughput. I fully understand doubters when we first announced. But, every time another milestone is reached, more belief sets in among the population,” he says.

So what is the future of standalone GEO operators with the likes of OneWeb snapping at their heels? Wyler says it is important not to focus on the technology, but rather the mission behind it. He believes failure is when people get locked into a topology or a technology, rather than the mission they are on. He says he is agnostic to the topology used to accomplish his goals. “I chose satellite because it was the best answer to solve the specific mission we were on. Fiber and cable networks have a relatively small footprint compared to the size of the world and are expensive to deploy. Terrestrial cable networks can only reach so far and our mission will pick up where they leave off. We needed to provide a cost-structure per household which is substantially less than any other technology or topology for those uncovered homes. It so happens that is done by NGSO satellite. Fiber is really expensive and really hard. It is developed for the high density, high GDP areas. We will be able to serve the low density, low GDP parts of the world,” he says.

How Many Satellites — Is That the Wrong Question?

It seems as an industry we get caught up in how many satellites there will be in a constellation. It is understandable in many ways, given that we are now talking about constellations with potentially thousands of satellites. However, Wyler politely points out that while this maybe a valid question, the real question should be around the performance of the constellation. “We need to get somewhere near 1 Petabit per second in total throughput by 2025 in order to accomplish our mission. This is where we are heading. That will allow us to bridge the digital divide,” he says.

Rendition of a OneWeb satellite.

OneWeb has the priority rights for about 2,000 satellites today and Wyler says the company fully intends to fully build that out, and could possibly build additional satellites on top of that. Wyler called the fixation about the numbers an “interesting but irrelevant indication of performance.” He says somewhat ironically that a company could build a very inefficient system with lots of satellites. Ultimately, though, it comes down to latency, throughput, volume, how many subscribers it can support and at what speeds and latency. “It is funny that people don’t focus on that. We are building highly efficient satellites and really want to have as few as satellites as possible, even though the question portends to rate our system by how many we have. In reality, more satellites equals more complexity, more chances of failure and more safety issues. The potential for space debris from poorly designed systems is much more real than people understand and could ultimately impact humanities ability to access space,” he adds.

Learnings from O3b

The beauty of the OneWeb project is that Wyler has already been through a similar process with O3b and he has been able to use that experience to further OneWeb’s mission. He admits that O3b was a completely different system, but it proved that NGSOs with high capacity could be built. The O3B system is more designed for telecoms headends rather than direct to consumer, which means a different focus. O3b also came into being at the time of the financial crash of 2009 and the Lehman Brothers collapse, which meant it was even harder for new companies to get funding. However, O3b not only got the financing it needed, it thrived, and is now a vital part of SES’ growth vision over the next decade.

Wyler says the key reason why it survived was that the system worked thanks to a clear and simple design. “One of the great things about O3b was that you could put your hands around the entire thing. You could poke it at any point and know that it worked. This is where OneWeb is at as well. I have taken this very much to heart. You want an elegant and simple system that works. In satellite, if you design a system based on yet to be invented science history shows you that there is a low likelihood it will ever get built. I think the great mistake that people make in satellite design is thinking they can take things from the ground and just put them in space. This works fine for a few months, but not much longer. Every time someone tries to build a real system like this their system timeline moves to the right, the satellites get heavier, and the costs get stratospheric. While you can use COTS components from the ground there is a path to making that happen, but it is often not as fast or as cheap as people imagine.”

Where is OneWeb?

OneWeb is moving at a fast pace. In the past several months, it has inaugurated its solar panel factory in New Mexico as well as a space structures factory in Florida and its final assembly line in Toulouse. The company aims to come into service at the end of 2019.

One of its most recent milestones was gaining approval for its system design. In late June, Ajit Pai, chairman of the FCC, released a statement confirming that the FCC had approved OneWeb’s petition to enter the U.S. market with its planned constellation of 720 satellites. Wyler says the United States is one country of many suffering from a digital divide, where many of its citizens (at least 34 million people) are without broadband, and many others have no access to the internet at all.

“It was an important piece of the puzzle,” Wyler says, referring to the approval. “We are happy to see their resolute focus on bridging the digital divide and recognition of our role in that mission … Of course, the rest of the world also suffers from a digital divide, and OneWeb is here for everyone. We are an international company with investors representing many different countries. We see our obligations to the globe.” VS