Fierce 15 2016: OneWeb plans to launch wireless services via hundreds of satellites

Editor's note: Welcome to the 2016 Fierce 15, an annual list that recognizes 15 of the most interesting startups in the wireless industry. We’ve published one profile a day for 15 days; OneWeb is the 15th and final company to be recognized this year.

Company: OneWeb Ltd.
Where it's based: Arlington, Virginia
When it was founded: 2012

Why it's Fierce: OneWeb plans to launch and operate the world’s largest satellite network to reach consumers in emerging markets and other regions where broadband is inaccessible.

OneWeb may be the most ambitious and audacious startup on this year’s Fierce 15 list. The company plans to launch hundreds of communications satellites over the next few years in an effort to provide affordable, high-speed web access to students and other users in markets where modern telecom infrastructures are inaccessible. It has raised more than $500 million from heavyweights such as Airbus Group, Bharti, Coca Cola, Hughes, Virgin Group and Qualcomm.

And it all stems from founder Greg Wyler’s experience in Rwanda in the 1990s during the horrific genocide.

“Rwandans lacked infrastructure for communication, so Wyler built a small network enabling access to emergency services,” OneWeb Communications Designer Chris Torres told FierceWireless via email. “The difficulty in setting up a reliable cellular network in those types of conditions was enormous, but the need so basic. OneWeb hopes to solve that problem providing affordable connectivity on a global basis using its satellite constellation.”

OneWeb is pre-revenue and claims roughly 200 full-time employees, although 300 more engineers from partners are said to be working on the project full-time. The startup hopes to manage a network of more than 600 satellites in 18 polar orbit planes at 750 miles above the earth, lower than most other satellites. The constellation will transmit in the 12 GHz to 18 GHz band of spectrum, reportedly generating 6 gigabits per second of throughput, communicating with a phased array antenna network on the ground to provide web access at 50 megabits per second.

OneWeb hopes its massive scale enables it to achieve a target cost of $500,000 per satellite, and its entire architecture will cost from $1.5 billion to $2 billion – if things go according to plan. The company plans to sell its services to governments and mobile network operators looking to complement existing terrestrial-based offerings. It also plans to market its offering as an alternative to terrestrial networks during natural disasters and other emergency scenarios.

What's next: “We will begin launching our system in 2018 and will roll out services from 2019,” Torres said. “Space is always challenging, however the technology needed on the ground to process handovers from the user terminal and gateway is especially challenging.”

Read more: FierceWireless's Fierce 15 2016