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OneWeb facing extra problems?

September 13, 2018

OneWeb, founded by Greg Wyler, is planning to circle the planet with a mega-constellation of hundreds of satellites in order to reach unserved, or underserved, broadband consumers. It has just swapped out its CEO which is something of a concern to the industry, but there are now extra questions over its financing and business model.

OneWeb is, in theory, extremely well backed. It has the might of Japanese media conglomerate SoftBank’s wealthy ‘Vision Fund’ as a major investor, but is also financially supported by the likes of Airbus, Intelsat, Virgin, CocaCola and India’s Bharti.

Nevertheless, there are sceptics. First up are delays with the first batch of 10 satellites under construction by Airbus at its Toulouse facility. They are already late by many months and will not now launch much before February next year, although OneWeb officials at this week’s World Satellite Business Week in Paris reportedly said they are now overly worried by the delay.

This test-batch of 10 were also hoped to prove the ‘production line’ capability of eventually building up to 900 satellites, and at a price of about $500,000 per craft. There is now reportedly considerable doubt as to whether that target price can be achieved, with industry insiders suggesting the price could be as high as $900,000 per unit. And in the absence of hard news from OneWeb the rumours will – no doubt – see the price per satellite rise.

However, there is also uncertainty over OneWeb’s initial funding, which specialist trade publication Space Intel Report states has been variously quoted at $1.2 billion, or $1.7 billion, or more than $2 billion. This round of cash is much less than that needed to build and launch the fleet of satellites, which the company has variously said would need a total of some $3.5-$6 billion, and no doubt not including the costs of getting the business established with consumers.

This has led to questions over how that funding – whatever the amount – is flowing into the business, and the importance of the banks and lending institutions. This has provoked other questions, not least over the role of the French export credit agency (Bpifrance) which is said to want to see more customer commitments before its coughs up its cash.

Much of the funding is earmarked for the construction of its j-v satellite facility (with Airbus) near Cape Canaveral in Florida where two side-by-side production lines are being built to start production of some 900 satellites needed for the constellation.

Eric Beranger, the well-regarded former head of Airbus Defence’s Operations & Quality, was OneWeb’s CEO until replaced by Adrian Steckel on September 7th. Steckel is the fourth CEO appointed in barely 3 years. The Paris conference heard Beranger say he was happy with his new role, and that Steckel would focus on the crucial cash-raising.

But there’s also talk now of how many rival satellite constellations might actually be needed. One suggestion (in Space Intel Report) is that revisions are possible, and instead of OneWeb’s all-KaBand proposal, it might pair with Canada’s Telesat, also with its eyes on a super-constellation of 292 craft , and combine Telesat’s KuBand with its own KaBand on to a single satellite and slash build and launch costs, or simply merge!

Merger or not, any problems – financial or operational – with OneWeb are being seen as being a threat to the other proposed broadband and Internet of Things systems under development, whether from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, LeoSat, Kasific, Boeing, and plenty of others.

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