WorldVu Satellites is planning to launch the world's largest satellite constellation, to bring Internet to the unconnected, with help from the Virgin Group and Qualcomm. If this sounds familiar, it's because this isn't founder Greg Wyler's first foray into the constellations for connectivity.
Wyler was also the founder of Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)-backed O3b Networks Ltd. , which was unveiled in 2007 with the similar goal of connecting the unconnected. Last month 03b launched its third set of four satellites over Latin America and Africa.
Wyler was reportedly working with Google on its own satellite ambitions for a while, but left to found WorldVu, which is rebranding as OneWeb.
With investment from Virgin Group and Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM), the satellite startup is announcing the OneWeb project to bring what it says will be the world's largest constellation of 648 low-orbit satellites to make high-speed Internet and telephony available to billions of people who don't currently have access.
Qualcomm and Virgin have invested undisclosed sums in OneWeb, and Qualcomm Chairman Paul Jacobs and Virgin CEO Richard Branson will be joining Wyler on the company's board. Wyler tells the Wall Street Journal that it will cost an estimated $1.5 billion to $2 billion to launch the service. (See Google Plans Web of Satellites – Report.)
Virgin Galactic's LauncherOne spacecraft program will be responsible for getting the satellites into space, at a relatively low cost and with great reliability, the company says. By the time its second constellation goes up, Virgin says it will have launched more satellites than there currently are in the sky. It plans to work with mobile network operators on the ground to bring connectivity to areas that were previously too expensive to reach.
The goal is certainly a noble one, given that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) says more than half the world lacks Internet access at the end of 2014. It's also one that companies like Facebook , Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and one-time WorldVu partner SpaceX are pursuing through drones, balloons and satellites. Facebook, for example, just today announced it has begun offering free Internet in Cambodia. (See Facebook Launches Free Internet in Colombia, Comms in Space! Musk Plans Micro-Satellites, Google Leases NASA's Moffett Field, Facebook, Google in New Drone Race, Forget the Internet, Brace for Skynet and Broadband: It's All Hot Air for Google.)
Interestingly, WorldVu was rumored to have close ties to SpaceX, who was thought to be its ticket into space. It appears that relationship has ended, much like Wyler's with Google. The reason could be that OneWeb has found new partners with deep pockets. Branson writes in a blog post that Virgin Galactic has always planned to build a commercial spaceline that can create positive change back on earth.
"Well, both human spaceflight and the satellite constellation have the potential to transform lives in ways that almost no other companies have done before," he says.
At any rate, the competition is taking to the skies, and that will ultimately be a good thing for those without access and potentially for mobile network operators, if they can work out a business model around connecting the unconnected.
— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading