When Via Satellite spoke to Greg Wyler in 2020, I asked if this was it for him and the space industry, that after O3B and OneWeb, he would follow a different path in the future. He said at the time, “I would not make a definite statement related to my space-based activities. Time will tell. I wouldn’t say I am out of satellite. I still believe satellite could play a very big role for a lot of use cases.”
Fast forward just under two years, one of the satellite industry’s most mercurial individuals is back with another ambitious plan for E-Space, which could potentially be a network of around 100,000 satellites. In February, E-Space announced a $50 million investment from Prime Mover Lab, as it gets set to bring Wyler’s latest creation to commercial reality.
It represents a fascinating new chapter for Wyler who has been one of the most talked about, and even polarizing figures in the satellite industry in recent times. In this interview with Via Satellite, Wyler talks about why he thinks things will be different with E-Space, what he has learned from the O3b and OneWeb experiences, and why the third time could be the charm regarding his satellite endeavors.
VIA SATELLITE: O3b Networks, OneWeb, and now E-Space. Do you believe that E-Space will be your legacy for the satellite industry?
Wyler: E-Space is definitely bolder than anything I have done before because we now have a double mission. In addition to efficient communications, we are proactively leaning into the problem of space debris. Over the last 10 years, the industry grew quickly — and that’s great, but the rapidly changing technology created such a multiplication of new satellites that regulators couldn’t keep up. Without major new directives, we are headed towards a tragedy of the commons, major space debris. So, the first internal guideline I set out for our team was that our satellites must continue to operate after a Kessler event and, second, we needed to develop ways to clean up space. It’s hard to know how far we will get with cleaning up space but for sure, we will be a net positive.
VIA SATELLITE: When we spoke before, you said candidly that you might not come back to the space industry. When did you make the decision to come back and why do you think things will be different now?
Wyler: A few years ago, I looked at humanity’s huge challenges, saw some ways to solve them and determined that developing less expensive satellites could do just that. I then privately worked on concepts to re-architect satellites and space systems. At some point, much like with O3b and OneWeb, a new design became so clear and the mission so helpful to humanity that building it became an imperative. I also have a very active family life, and, at the same time, my growing children cheered on this new adventure. For them and Earth’s common future, I decided to jump back in.
VIA SATELLITE: Playing devil’s advocate, does the world really need another 100,000-satellite constellation? Where is the business going to come from to feed all of these constellations?
Wyler: I don’t think anyone needs satellites and I’m not a satellite builder; I build systems with a purpose. For instance, the Tarana residential broadband network was best realized with fixed wireless, so I dove into wireless, helping our incredible team create an incredible service. When you set the goals correctly, the technologies will follow. So, if what we now want to accomplish is best realized with satellites, then we need to build satellites. The right questions are these: do you have good reasons for building satellites, is there a market need, and can you accomplish your objectives without a negative environmental impact? While I am sure of the market need for E-space, the net negative question looms as the biggest and most perplexing problem facing today’s constellation industry. Ultimately, I believe the regulatory bodies will get their arms around space debris. It may take a few major satellite collisions before they do, but they will get there.
VIA SATELLITE: What do you believe to be the estimated total cost of building E-Space’s satellite constellation? Could you tell us about the timeline of building and launching this network?
Wyler: We will have some announcements soon. Our schedule is aggressive but achievable and we will be launching satellites in the near future.
VIA SATELLITE: When do you expect to reach profitability after the launch of the first set of satellites?
Wyler: We should be profitable by the end of 2025. Our system is quite unique, and our partners are confident in our capabilities. The design will be the world’s most secure satellite system and to preserve this level of security, companies and governments will need to own private constellations. If there is an onboard computer or regenerative payload, it can be hacked and if it is hacked, the messaging can be mirrored or modified. Governments need to operate on a system without commercial traffic, but they want it to be commercial in nature. Therefore, the price point has to come way down for secure, affordable private commercial systems. This creates an incredible new opportunity.
VIA SATELLITE: In the FT story looking at E-Space, Anton Brevde, partner at Prime Movers Lab suggested your design would do for satellites what Apple’s iPhone did for mobile phones. Haven’t we heard this all before?
Wyler: Yes, we have. If we look back at the differing industry approaches to satellites between 2010 and 2014, there was a complete revolution in design, architecture and construction. So, certainly, we’ve already been through one revolution. Could there be another or are we done? We have a certain view on that and are investing heavily based on our answer.
VIA SATELLITE: So, you think E-Space will revolutionize things here?
Wyler: Countries and companies are sending a lot of mass into orbit with childlike excitement but very little concern for the potential long-term negative effects. We really need to think about space debris in a much more serious way or we will end up hurting our own interests. Conversations are a good start, but low-cost ultra-safe system design is the revolution waiting to happen. It is way too easy to spend too much money in this industry.
VIA SATELLITE: What is the number one learning you take from OneWeb/O3b to E-Space?
Wyler: Capital structure has an enormous impact on the ability of an enterprise to succeed. Strategic money usually is focused on the interests of the strategic partners rather than the needs of the company. We won’t be taking strategic money if there are strings attached because those strings could tie us down. It is super important for all companies to have all stakeholders focused on the path that optimizes their growth.
VIA SATELLITE: Talk to us about the specifics in manufacturing the satellites, who will do that? The launch tender? Ground equipment?
Wyler: Right now, a lot of the work we are doing is internal, but we do have a tight supply chain of vendors supporting us. Unlike previous ventures, we only will announce investment structures or deals with vendors in relevant cases.
VIA SATELLITE: Why is that?
Wyler: I am not sure it is in our best interests to announce every detail. Right now we are keeping our heads down architecting our system. With OneWeb and even O3b, I opened up our system architecture because it was so far-fetched, I needed to build credibility, or at least I felt I did. At OneWeb, a fantastic team quickly built credibility across the entire marketplace. With E-space, we just haven’t needed to reveal much technical detail in order build fundraising credibility or to attract strong interest from the supply base.
VIA SATELLITE: Let’s go back to space debris. People will understandably bring up issues of space debris and space sustainability. Given the increasing concern on these issues, why do you think E-Space will be a good thing here?
Wyler: We are being very aggressive in our thinking of how to deal with space debris and plan to be the most environmentally conscious of any space company in the constellation business. Space debris is probably the number one business risk for large constellations, there is no getting around that. While regulators around the world need more support in controlling space debris, most companies try to minimize the issue in their eyes. Space debris is a big problem that needs to be regulated, so we are designing technologies ahead of these coming rules to demonstrate that minimizing and even reducing space debris is achievable.
VIA SATELLITE: In the past you spoke about a mission to connect the world. This was one of the drivers behind O3b and OneWeb. The question remains is it possible to build a successful, thriving, profitable business and achieve such a mission as this?
Wyler: I think it is, but the $5 billion to $10 billion constellation model is broken. Originally, I did drive a $3 billion to $4 billion model, however large constellation concepts are getting more expensive while terrestrial networks are getting cheaper. This contradiction continues to plague every current constellation system. Will some organizations be successful? Absolutely, depending on how they define success. The larger issue is that connecting the world with today’s satellite architecture and design is turning out to be a very, very expensive proposition. It also is turning out to be dangerous because the answer is always more mass. Without concern for cross section, space is ending up with more and more debris, creating severe environmental issues.
VIA SATELLITE: Other constellation companies would say they do have concerns about space debris and are taking it seriously.
Wyler: Of course they will. No company will say they put money ahead of space debris but look carefully at how little engineering they are putting into failsafe mechanisms. Do you know any companies whose failed satellites drop into a fast deorbit mode? Every dead satellite will become an uncontrollable, large cross-section object weighing hundreds of kilograms that, in a collision, will turn into scattered debris. Sure, all companies say they are environmentally conscious, but there is a lot more they can do to produce the kind of results that demonstrate the environmental sensitivity they claim. And the problems are more than just cross section and mass. Overwrapped composite pressure vessels can fall to the ground, causing large constellations to dump tons of harmful raw aluminum into our ozone layer. To stay ahead of these pitfalls, we are designing a new generation of satellites without such pressure vessels that have very little aluminum.
VIA SATELLITE: Given what happened with OneWeb, do you have any trepidation about putting yourself out there again with a venture such as this?
Wyler: I left OneWeb in 2017. There were many ups and downs, but it is an amazing venture and the goals are incredibly pure. It was never about trying to make a ton of money to do something else; the mission itself was a calling and, therefore, self-gratifying. When I believe something is important, I go all in.
VIA SATELLITE: You said in our last interview “We are still somewhere between 1G and 2G in satellite.” Has anything really changed in this regard?
Wyler: Yes, we are focused on what will be the Third Generation. Time will prove us right.
VIA SATELLITE: You also said “the large-scale consumer broadband market is dead on arrival for satellite. It is niche at best.” Do you still believe that?
Wyler: I think that is proving to be true, but we need to be careful about the term large scale. There is no way for satellite in the main markets to compete with cable modems, fiber optics, short range 5G, or Tarana fixed wireless. In the rural areas outside the wealthy countries, the consumer markets are financially challenged and there is limited electrical power which limits total penetration.
VIA SATELLITE: I know one of E-Space’s target markets is government, but everyone is targeting this market. Surely, there is only so much government business to be had for satellite capacity?
Wyler: Yes, that is true, and there is going to be a lot of fallout in the industry. We are actually talking to several companies about acquisitions. When startups have led with technology rather than solving a consumer problem, the incredibly bright people creating these incredibly cool applications are finding that they are succeeding in their work but failing to develop markets, and the opportunity to build profitability.
VIA SATELLITE: After O3b, OneWeb, will it be the third time’s the charm with E-Space?
Wyler: I certainly hope so. I am much more experienced this time, the market is more mature, and we know exactly how to accomplish our goals. We also know the players, allowing us to assemble a team of passionate people who love being part of a successful mission that really is fun. I am just as excited as when I started O3b and OneWeb. E-Space is a great place for me and any talented engineer to be — at the beginning of an adventure that will have a significant, positive impact, not only on the industry but across the entire world. VS