I’m told that after a fair amount of difficulty and a month or two of delay, Greg Wyler has now successfully secured commitments of about $500M to start building the OneWeb system, and he will announce the contract signing with Airbus at the Paris Air Show next week. The next step will be to seek as much as $1.7B in export credit financing from COFACE to support the project with an objective of closing that deal by the end of 2015.
This comes despite Elon Musk’s best efforts to derail the project, culminating in an FCC filing on May 29. That filing proposes the launch of 2 Ku-band test satellites in late 2016, which would presumably be aimed at ensuring OneWeb is forced to share the spectrum with SpaceX, as I predicted back in March.
Clearly Musk is not happy about the situation, since I’m told he fired Barry Matsumori, SpaceX’s head of sales and business development, a couple of weeks ago, after a disagreement over whether the SpaceX LEO project was attracting a sufficiently high public profile.
Most observers appear to think that Musk’s actions are primarily motivated by animus towards Wyler and question whether SpaceX is truly committed to building a satellite network (which is amplified by the half-baked explanation of the project that Musk gave in his Seattle speech in January, and the fact that I’m told SpaceX’s Seattle office is still little more than a sign in front of an empty building).
Google also demonstrated what appears to be a lack of enthusiasm for satellite, despite having invested $900M in SpaceX earlier this year, when its lawyers at Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis asked the FCC on May 20 to include a proposal for WRC-15 that consideration should be given to sharing all of the spectrum from 6GHz to 30GHz (including the Ku and Ka-bands) with balloons and drones (see pp66-81 of this document). Needless to say, this last minute proposal has met with furious opposition from the satellite industry.
However, one unreported but intriguing aspect of SpaceX’s application is the use of a large (5m) high power S-band antenna operating in the 2180-2200MHz spectrum band for communication with the satellites. Of course that spectrum is controlled by DISH, after its purchase of DBSD and TerreStar, and so its interesting to wonder if SpaceX has sought permission from DISH to use that band, and if so, what interest Charlie Ergen might have in the SpaceX project.
Nevertheless, it looks like Wyler is going to win the initial skirmish, though there are still many rounds to play out in this fight. In particular, if Musk truly believes that the LEO project, and building satellites in general, are really going to be a source of profits to support his visions of traveling to Mars (as described in Ashlee Vance’s fascinating biography, which I highly recommend) then he may well invest considerable resources in pursuing this effort in the future.
If that’s the case, then the first to get satellites into space will have a strong position to argue to the FCC that they should select which part of the Ku-band spectrum they will use, and so Wyler will also have to develop one or more test satellites in the very near future. Fortunately for him, Airbus’s SSTL subsidiary is very well placed to develop such a satellite, and I’d expect a race to deploy in the latter part of 2016, with SpaceX’s main challenge being to get their satellite working, and OneWeb’s challenge being to secure a co-passenger launch slot in a very constrained launch environment.