SoftBank’s $1bn investment to bring the web to the world

By:
Jason McGee-Abe
Published on:

For the first time, OneWeb CEO Eric Béranger reveals to Alan Burkitt-Gray the key role that shareholder SoftBank will play – alongside OneWeb itself – in marketing the new low-latency backhaul service to mobile operators worldwide


OneWeb CEO Eric Béranger
Eric Béranger: SoftBank and OneWeb itself will want to market services to mobile operators in every part of the world


Japanese operator SoftBank, which owns a majority stake in Sprint, will be marketing OneWeb’s satellite backhaul services to mobile companies worldwide as the new service goes into operation over the next few years.

The role follows SoftBank’s $1billion investment in the OneWeb satellite project in December 2016, part of a $1.2 billion funding round. OneWeb itself will also be marketing its own services to mobile operators: SoftBank does not have an exclusive deal.

OneWeb, whose other backers include Airbus, Bharti Enterprises, Hughes Network Systems, Intelsat and Virgin, will have a low-earth-orbit network of 720 tiny satellites that will connect new base stations in remote areas. They will also be very low-latency.

SoftBank is now the biggest investor in the project. “The entry of SoftBank was a very important step for us,” says OneWeb CEO Eric Béranger. “SoftBank will want to market our services to every part of the world.”

Discussions have already started with possible partners in the mobile industry, though Béranger won’t give details. OneWeb will supply terminals that will deliver mobile and Wifi signals in the immediate area and connect with the company’s satellites orbiting 1,200km above the earth – a distance that means a round-trip latency of only 8ms.

REMOTE AREAS

The focus will be on remote and unconnected areas, says Béranger. “There are 55 million US citizens who are unconnected, and 61% of Asia and the Pacific are also unconnected or badly connected.” But OneWeb will also be able to provide connections to ships and aircraft.

The first 10 OneWeb satellites are due for launch in early 2018, with the whole fleet of 720 due to be in service by the end of 2019.

“We are on track,” says Béranger. “OneWeb is a very exciting project. We are on the way to make a very big difference and to change the lives of millions of people.”

The company hit “all the milestones” in 2016 in terms of designing the systems and preparing the satellites for production, he says. The first pieces of hardware are being assembled in Toulouse, the French city where the Airbus group is based. “And we’re on track to build our assembly line in Florida.”

Why Toulouse and why Florida? The plan from the beginning was to start off in Toulouse, where Airbus Defence and Space – formerly Astrium – has made many satellites over the years. But then the company needed somewhere to start a production line. In April 2016 it negotiated a funding agreement with the state of Florida to build a factory at Exploration Park, just outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center.

Its choice of Florida, apart from the public-sector grant, is because of the engineering talent in the area. 

“Doing the pilot phase in Airbus and then transferring to Florida for production was the fastest way to go,” says Béranger, who has made a similar transition: until his appointment to OneWeb he was Airbus Defence and Space’s managing director of space systems programmes. Now he is in Florida.

He has worked in the space manufacturing industry since 1998, and started his career in France Telecom – now Orange – in its satellite telecommunications directorate back in 1988. He also had a couple of years as an investment banker with Société Générale in the last 1990s, but aside from that it has been 30 years of satellites.

“OneWeb is really a mobile network operator and we are embedded in the telecoms ecosystem,” says Béranger. It will work with existing licensed mobile operators, rather than compete with them, by offering satellite-connected base stations.

They will be unlike most existing base stations that operate in remote areas, which are connected by geostationary satellites, 36,000km above the equator. It takes 135ms to reach the satellite from the base station, another 135ms back down to the mobile operator’s network centre. If the person you’re calling is served by another satellite-connected base station, there’s another 270ms up and down.

“We will make a difference and change the lives of millions of people," Eric Béranger, CEO, OneWeb

Say “hello” to the person you’re calling and it will be more than half a second before they hear you, another half-second before you hear their reply: it is extremely difficult to maintain a voice call with that sort of latency, and totally impossible for any data transaction.

By comparison, OneWeb’s satellites will almost skim the surface of the planet. If you’re in Exploration Park, the nearest orbiting OneWeb satellite will be nearer to you than Washington DC. That is why the company needs to operate so many satellites: 720 in service, in 40 orbital planes, to cover the whole planet, with 180 spares.

Each base station will connect to the nearest satellite, hopping to the next as it comes into sight – akin to a mobile phone’s hand-off between one base station along the road and the next.

“It’s really a mobile network with a 4G connection, and tomorrow a 5G, core to which mobile operators will connect as if they were connected to any other operator,” says Béranger. “The connection to us will be seamless. The only difference is that instead of connecting to the backhaul via fibre or microwave you’ll connect by satellite. Because it’s low orbit the latency will be comparable to what you get with the existing cellular network.”

LTE AND WIFI HOTSPOT

The remote base station will be connected via OneWeb satellites to an operator’s evolved packet core (EPC) and will be able to deliver voice, data, TV and other services via LTE or Wifi and eventually 5G. “We will extend the reach for any type of service, including voice and emergency communications.” OneWeb will create “a hotspot in any part of the world”, and that includes maritime and aviation services, he says.

OneWeb will control its fleet of satellites from the US, with another control centre likely to be in the UK, probably at Stevenage, just north of London, where Airbus and its predecessors have been making satellites for decades.

Have any mobile operators already signed up for service, in advance of the launch? Béranger doesn’t name names. “We already have some contracts, and the entry of SoftBank was a very important step, because SoftBank will want to market the service to everyone in the world.” But, he emphasises, SoftBank won’t have an exclusive marketing deal to sell OneWeb services.

SoftBank, which is also a majority shareholder in US mobile operator Sprint, was an unexpected investor in December 2016. It had not been part of the first $500 million funding in June 2015. The new money enabled OneWeb to start building its production line at Exploration Park, and this new facility will manufacture 15 satellites a week.

Masayoshi Son, chairman and CEO of SoftBank, made some enthusiastic comments at the time of its acquisition, about OneWeb being “a tremendously exciting company poised to transform internet access around the world from their manufacturing facility in Florida”. But he made no comment in December about SoftBank’s marketing role.

Béranger makes it clear to Global Telecoms Business, for the first time anywhere, that the Japanese company is more than a silent partner in the project. It will actively promote and sell OneWeb’s services to mobile operators worldwide.

“SoftBank is a prominent player in the market.” Its arrival into OneWeb “is a very telling signal about the value proposition. What we are doing is extremely solid,” he says.

SEAMLESS 4G AND 5G

“We can seamlessly bring 4G today and 5G tomorrow,” says Béranger. The base stations will be standard kit, as used by operators the world over, with the satellite backhaul facility built in. “Since we are using satellites there needs to be a small, but important, adaptation to the air interface to fit in with the standards and protocols.”

How much will OneWeb charge to provide a base station and backhaul services via its satellites? “This is a part we are keeping for our conversations with them,” he says. “We are not planning to publish it.”

Qualcomm, one of OneWeb’s investors, has developed a chipset that will go into the satellite kit, which will be built by another shareholder, Hughes Network Systems.

“Then anything beyond this – the mobile antenna and so on – is in a way like Lego, and any terminal manufacturer can put in the functionality and sell it to whatever mobile operator needs it. It is totally open.” OneWeb is “working with a number of manufacturers” that can make mobile terminals.

More funding is needed and CFO Steven Fay – formerly with Google’s low-orbit satellite project, which now seems to be subsumed into SpaceX’s scheme to launch 4,425 satellites – will be raising debt, says Béranger. “This is in process. We are on track on the finance side and this is well under way.”

All that’s needed now, as the satellites come through the production line, is a series of successful launches, managed by French company Arianespace, using Russian-built Soyuz rockets.

To emphasise the truly international scale of the project, the launches will not take place from Cape Canaveral, outside OneWeb’s new factory, but from two or three alternative sites: Kourou, in France’s South American enclave of French Guiana – and therefore part of the European Union – as well as Baikonur in Kazakhstan, and maybe also from a Russian site.

And then, to use an old Cape Canaveral term from the 1960s, it will be “all systems go” to bring 4G to all of the world.