SoftBank's Satellite Startup Throws Down Gauntlet to Elon Musk

(Bloomberg) -- Space is about to get even more crowded.

A venture backed by Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp. and British entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Group will send the first of around 600 satellites into the skies above French Guiana on Wednesday to bring broadband to remote regions.

OneWeb is in a race with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and two other ventures, Telesat and LeoSat, to build constellations of low-earth orbit satellites to tap into the surging flows of data across the globe.

Success could help salvage the space industry’s reputation as an investing minefield. The new satellites are smaller and cheaper than older models from operators such as ViaSat Inc. and Inmarsat Plc. OneWeb says it can build the units at a rate of more than one a day for less than a 10th of the cost of a traditional rig.

“It’s a huge deal that it’s happening now, after seven or eight years and so many delays from launchers, from manufacturers, from funding,” Northern Sky Research analyst Shagun Sachdeva said of the OneWeb launch.

SoftBank's Satellite Startup Throws Down Gauntlet to Elon Musk

Unlike older satellites that usually sit in fixed positions more than 30,000 kilometers (18,640 miles) out in space, the new satellites will move across the globe in clusters about 1,200 kilometers above the Earth’s surface in choreographed patterns to cut the distance between signal and target and reduce delays.

They’re going after business with emergency services, mining companies and shipping firms that work in remote regions. OneWeb, which says it has more than $2 billion in funding, also wants to connect cars, remote communities and schools around the world.

A Soyuz rocket is due to launch the first six OneWeb satellites from the Guiana Space Centre at 6:37 p.m. local time.

Technical Challenge

Success is not assured. Some of the money saved from mass producing smaller satellites on production lines could end up being spent on the complex software needed to make them function. Operators must keep costs for consumers low enough to ensure mass adoption and they still face regulatory hurdles to beaming data between dozens of countries.

The huge amount of terrestrial equipment required could swallow around a third of their capital spending, according to Northern Sky Research -- SpaceX has asked for U.S. regulatory approval to use 1 million ground terminals. And low-earth orbit satellites have about half the life of geostationary satellites, so will need replacing after five to seven years.

Competition will still come from above: Older operators like ViaSat, Eutelsat Communications SA, Intelsat SA and Inmarsat are investing in more powerful geostationary satellites and collaborating with companies such as Facebook Inc. and Deutsche Telekom AG to beam broadband to rural areas and airplanes.

OneWeb says it’s got additional funding from Qualcomm Inc., Bharti Enterprises Ltd, Coca-Cola Co., Grupo Salinas and Hughes Network Systems LLC among others. More of its satellites, which were developed by Airbus SE in France, are set for launch later this year.

Musk is also moving fast. SpaceX has sent two test satellites into orbit for its Starlink project and plans more launches this year after winning U.S. government approval for about 12,000 satellites. That compares to around 2,000 currently active satellites, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a U.S. organization which compiles the data.

Sachdeva said OneWeb’s institutional backing and speed in getting to market has given it an edge over SpaceX, Telesat and LeoSat.

“We do see the market getting crowded in broadband for sure,” she said. “The sustainability of the business case is really the challenging part here.”

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