An Update on LEO Satellites

A lot of rural America continues to hope that low orbit satellite (LEO) service will provide a broadband alternative. It’s been a while since I’ve covered the status of the companies proposing to deploy constellations of satellites for providing broadband.

In March, OneWeb filed for Chapter 11 restructuring when it was clear that the company could not raise enough cash to continue the research and development of the satellite product. In July, a bankruptcy court in New York approved a $1 billion offer to take over the company filed jointly by the British Government and Bharti Airtel. Airtel is India’s largest cellular company. The restructured company will be owned with 45% stakes by Britain and Bharti Airtel, with the remaining 10% held by Softbank of Japan, the biggest original shareholder of OneWeb. Other earlier investors like the founders, Intelsat, Totalplay Telecommunications of Mexico, and Coca-Cola have been closed out of ownership by the transaction.

There is speculation that the British government purchased the company to create tech jobs in the country and that all R&D and manufacturing for OneWeb would immediately shift to England from Florida.

Of more concern for rural broadband is speculation that the mission of the company will change. Greg Wyler, the original CEO of the company had a vision of using the satellites to bring broadband to parts of the world that have no broadband. He chose a polar orbit for the satellites and was going to launch the business by serving Alaska and the northern territories of Canada like Nunavut. I’ve seen speculation that the revised company is likely to concentrate instead on wholesale connections to telcos and ISPs, such as providing backhaul for rural cell sites.

Elon Musk’s satellite venture StarLink was recently in the news when the company said it was going to raise ‘up to $1 billion’ to continue the development of the business. The company still has a long and expensive road to success. The company has raised over $3.5 billion to date before this latest raise, but a recent Bloomberg article estimates that the company will need to raise an additional $50 billion between now and 2033, which is when the company is projected to be cash-positive.

StarLink now has over 540 satellites in orbit, but the business plan calls for over 4,000. Keeping the constellation in place will be an ongoing challenge since the satellites have an estimated life of 5 to 6 years. Starlink will forever have to be launching new satellites to replace downed satellites.

The US government and the FCC seem to be in StarLink’s corner. The FCC is still evaluating if it will allow StarLink to participate in the upcoming RDOF grants auction in October. It would be incredibly unusual to award giant federal grants for a product that is still on the drawing board and for an ISP that hasn’t raised 10% of their needed funding.

StarLink recently made a very-public announcement that it was looking for beta customers – likely as a way to spur fundraising. Early Starlink customers will likely see blazingly fast speeds, which would happen for any broadband technology that could devote the bandwidth from one server to connect to one or two customers. The bandwidth delivered on a fully-subscribed satellite network will be far less – but that won’t stop the company from using a beta test to set unrealistic expectations of future satellite broadband speeds.

The last LEO player that is still active is Jeff Bezos venture that is still using the preliminary name of Project Kuiper. The FCC recently approved the licensing for Project Kuiper to move forward. Immediately following the FCC approval, Jeff Bezos announced that he will be investing $10 billion in the business. This ability to self-fund likely gives Project Kuiper an advantage over other competitors. It was reported that just for the month of July that Bezos’s net worth had climbed by $9 billion.  Funding is going to be a constant hurdle for the other two major competitors, but Project Kuiper might be the fastest to deploy if funding is not an issue.

The FCC approval pf Project Kuiper and the funding announcement by Bezos came at the same time that Starlink is seeking another round of financing and is trying to get into the FCC auction. It’s going to be interesting to see how the battle between two billionaires unfolds – my bet is on Amazon due to easy access to funding.