Virgin, Qualcomm, back 600-satellite space internet plan

Beardy Branson boards next-billion bandwagon, but his plan doesn't add up

WorldVu, an outfit that last year looked to have Elon Musk and Google backing its vision for a fleet of broadband-beaming low-earth orbit satellites, has scored support from Virgin Group and Qualcomm.

Now operating as OneWeb Ltd, but still helmed by former Google man Greg Wyler, the plan now calls for 648 satellites instead of the 700 mentioned last year. Virgin Galactic's nascent LauncherOne program has been picked as the launch vehicle – Branson says he has an “order” from OneWeb.

But the numbers aren't adding up on this one, for several reasons.

For starters, LauncherOne is yet to fly. Virgin's said it thinks it can do a launch in 2016, but space startups aren't noted for their ability to meet deadlines.

What we do know about LauncherOne is that its design calls for craft that can haul “120 kilograms (265 pounds) to a high-altitude Sun-Synchronous Orbit”, or more than double that to low-earth orbit. But The Wall Street Journal reports that OneWeb's birds will weigh 285 pounds and orbit at an altitude of about 750 miles (1200km). That's a bit more than Branson's birds can carry and an orbit a little higher than many sun-synchronous orbits.

LauncherOne's current capabilities also look problematic given Wyler told the Journal he needs “$1.5 billion to $2 billion” to get his constellation aloft. But with the payload capabilities mentioned above, it looks like OneWeb will need one LauncherOne mission per satellite. Multiply the number of satellites – 648 – by Virgin's promise that its craft can deliver “for a price of less than $10M” and it's not hard to reach expenditure well beyond the sums Wyler has mentioned to the Journal.

Another wrinkle: Qualcomm appears not to have made an announcement about this, to the public or to the NASDAQ on which it is listed. The company's commitment seems limited to a quote in OneWeb's press release to the effect that executive chairman Paul Jacobs is “... pleased to join Virgin as an initial investor, and we look forward to helping fund initial technical feasibility work for the satellite system.”

Bu Wyler's not saying how much Qualcomm or Virgin has tipped in.

Branson does say Virgin Galactic is hiring to scale up for the job of delivering OneWeb's birds. He's also trotted out a familiar “this'll be grand for all those people who can't get online today” empowerment spiel.

If it flies.

On the plus side, OneWeb does have a licence for the requisite spectrum. On the downside, there's no sign it's close to signing the “local operator partners” it needs to operate the “terminals” it imagines will “provide access to the surrounding area via a WiFi, LTE, 3G or 2G connection using an operator partner’s licensed spectrum, or only LTE or WiFi on unlicensed spectrum.”

The announcement of Virgin and Qualcomm's involvement in OneWeb is getting a lot of attention today.

We've also covered Outernet, a project that plans to beam data from satellites to solar-powered, WiFi networked storage devices holding most of Wikipedia and recent news. That effort's just scored US$479,785 of crowdcash and says it'll be ready to roll in August 2015.

And LauncherOne will fly exactly when? ®


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