I heard about this on Saturday and I, for one, am looking forward to this battle. Winners or Losers doesn't matter because at the end of the day we all benefit for what they are trying to accomplish.
Maybe they could work together?
It was an interesting week for ideas about the future of the Internet. On Wednesday, satellite industry notable Greg Wyler announced that his company OneWeb, which wants to build a micro-satellite network to bring Internet to all corners of the globe, secured investments from Richard Branson's Virgin Group and Qualcomm. Then in a separate announcement on Friday, Elon Musk said that he would also be devoting his new Seattle office to creating "advanced micro-satellites" to deliver Internet.
The satellite veteran
OneWeb, formerly WorldVu Satellites Ltd, aims to target rural markets, emerging markets, and in-flight Internet services on airlines, the Wall Street Journal reported. Both Branson and Qualcomm Executive Chairman Paul Jacobs will sit on the company's board, but Wyler did not say how much Virgin and Qualcomm invested in his company.
Wyler said that his company's goal is to create a network of 648 small satellites that would weigh in at around 285 pounds each. The satellites would be put in orbit 750 miles above the Earth and ideally cost about $350,000 each to build using an assembly line approach. Wyler also said that Virgin, which has its own space segment, would be launching the satellites into orbit. “As an airline and mobile operator, Virgin might also be a candidate to resell OneWeb’s service,” the Journal noted. Wyler has said that he projects it to take $1.5 billion to $2 billion to launch the service, and he plans to launch in 2018.
OneWeb's advantage is that it already secured the rights to a block of radio spectrum that it will use for Internet service through the International Telecommunications Union. Wyler's first big satellite Internet startup was O3b Networks Ltd., which partnered with Google to produce a similar product. That company took six years to launch its service and eventually suffered from satellite performance issues. Wyler left that company in September 2014 to create WorldVu/OneWeb, however, and he took with him the band of spectrumthat his new company hopes to use.
Bloomberg Businessweek reports that Wyler has a team of more than 30 engineers “developing the satellites, antennas, and software for OneWeb.”
The new kid
On the other hand there's Musk, who's a seasoned space-business launcher that's starting fresh in the world of satellite Internet services. The Telsa and SpaceX founder announced his plans to launch 700 satellites weighing less than 250 pounds each in November.
His satellites would also orbit the Earth at 750 miles above. Musk spoke to Bloomberg on Friday evening explaining that 750 miles above the Earth is much closer than the tens of thousands of miles above the Earth at which traditional telecommunications satellites operate. “The speed of light is 40 percent faster in the vacuum of space than it is for fiber,” Musk said. “The long-term potential is to be the primary means of long-distance Internet traffic and to serve people in sparsely populated areas.” In Musk's vision, while sending data from Los Angeles to San Francisco may not be faster by satellite, sending data from Johannesburg to San Francisco might.
Musk said on Friday night that the project would be based out of the Seattle office, and he will start with a team of 60 that could expand into a team of 1,000 in three to four years. “The employees will also work on SpaceX’s Falcon rockets, Dragon capsules, and additional vehicles to carry various supplies (and soon, people) into space,” Bloomberg reports.
Musk's venture will be considerably more expensive, possibly costing as much at $10 billion. It could take more than five years to get operational. “But we see it as a long-term revenue source for SpaceX to be able to fund a city on Mars,” Musk said on Friday night. “It will be important for Mars to have a global communications network as well. I think this needs to be done, and I don’t see anyone else doing it.”
Of course, satellite Internet as it now stands can't touch the quality of terrestrial-bound Internet in most areas of the world. And the Wall Street Journal notes that, “Historically, complex satellite projects with large constellations have run over budget and taken longer than expected to build and deploy.”
In November when Musk first put forward the idea of creating a satellite network for Internet services, anonymous sources indicated that Wyler and Musk were considering working together to bring down the cost and the risks of such a difficult venture. On Friday, however, Musk made it clear that the two companies are competitors more than partners, asserting that SpaceX’s manufacturing techniques would give the company an edge over OneWeb. “Greg and I have a fundamental disagreement about the architecture,” Musk said on Friday. “We want a satellite that is an order of magnitude more sophisticated than what Greg wants. I think there should be two competing systems.”
Branson, for his part, told Bloomberg that Musk doesn't have a chance compared to Wyler. “Greg has the rights, and there isn’t space for another network—like there physically is not enough space. If Elon wants to get into this area, the logical thing for him would be to tie up with us, and if I were a betting man, I would say the chances of us working together rather than separately would be much higher.”