OneWeb's Wyler: 'We've got a pretty clear path' to launch satellite constellation

with Greg Wyler, founder of OneWeb

Wyler


with Greg Wyler, founder of OneWeb

In January, WorldVu Satellites Limited, operating as OneWeb, announced plans to build, launch and operate a low-earth-orbit satellite constellation to help bring high-speed Internet and telephony to billions of people around the world.

It's not the only entity with that kind of mission. Other big names, like SpaceX and Google, are aiming to deliver Internet to remote areas of the world as well. But OneWeb believes it has the spectrum and the satellite know-how to make it happen, including in remote and rural areas of the United States, where wireless operators often struggle to find a suitable business case. 

OneWeb founder and CEO Greg Wyler describes OneWeb's terminals as small cells with integrated backhaul that can work with operators' existing 2G, 3G, LTE and/or Wi-Fi technologies, and the satellites, which OneWeb is designing, will be 36 times closer to the earth--at 1,200 kilometers--than traditional communications satellites, which are at 36,000 kilometers. Earlier this week, Rockwell Collins revealed that it has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with OneWeb to be the exclusive developer and provider of its satellite communication terminals, which will use electronically scanned array (ESA) antenna technology developed by Rockwell Collins.

Wyler's also got the backing of Qualcomm and The Virgin Group, with Qualcomm Executive Chairman Paul Jacobs and Virgin Group Founder Sir Richard Branson joining the company's board of directors. FierceWirelessTech Editor Monica Alleven recently caught up with Wyler to hear more about his plans. Following is an edited version of the conversation.

FierceWirelessTech: Getting mobile services to rural areas has always been a challenge for the wireless industry. How are you going to do it? Is it a technology problem that you're solving?

Wyler: We've got a pretty clear path. It's not just a technology problem. It is a technology, regulatory, implementation, education problem. It's kind of a little bit of everything. I think you need to look at it as highly multi-dimensional. The first step in any of this is regulatory and spectrum rights. That is the fundamental part of building anything. Spectral certainty is an absolute requirement to building something.

The second part that comes in is your terminal design and you need to think of OneWeb, or I think of OneWeb, as a global communications provider that happens to use satellites. We are solving the rural connectivity problem by creating an easy on-ramp for people to the Internet using devices they already have, substantially reducing the barriers to getting online.

From a user standpoint, we need to reduce the complexity of getting access to the Internet. Today, if you don't have a cable modem installed and someone comes and does it, you need to have another type of installer and it's a very complex installation process. So you need to have low-cost, easy to install, easy-to-maintain terminals.

What we're doing in approaching these markets is we're designing a system that can extend the mobile network operator's reach, economically, into the rural areas. Today, the technologies that are available to mobile operators work well in high population density, high GDP areas, so where you have lots of people and lots of money. The technologies fall off and become uneconomic for operators in low population density, low GDP areas.

At some point, with the current list of technologies, they have nothing to use… So while regulators are pushing and encouraging them, in some cases requiring them, they have no economically viable means to do so. That's what we're doing. We are creating a solution for mobile operators and giving them an economically viable way of getting coverage in rural areas.

Latency plays a big part in this. Because our system is so low latency, less than 30 milliseconds, it's transparent to an LTE network between the MME and the eNodeB.

FierceWirelessTech: What spectrum will it use?

Wyler: On the terrestrial side, it's spectrum agnostic. The carrier can choose whatever spectrum they want to use. On the satellite side, it's low earth orbit, and using both Ku and Ka, but primarily Ku to the terminal.

The ITU manages all spectrum for space. When you're in space, all space-related spectrum is managed by the ITU, and terrestrial spectrum by nations. In 1997, the ITU created a right for the use of certain spectrum, Ku and Ka, provided that with mathematical certainty, it would not interfere with current GEO satellite users.

OneWeb acquired the spectrum rights, designed its own technique to unlock that spectrum so it could be used for this purpose. In general, it's called Progressive Pitch, and it's a patent-pending methodology for maximizing throughput while ensuring no interference with the GEO operators. That technology allows us to unlock a very large amount of spectrum.

FierceWirelessTech: How do you make it economical/viable for unpopulated areas? It sounds like you've figured that out.

Wyler: The biggest answer is scale. By doing this at scale, we're able to drive the price down. By designing terminals and a system with very low barrier for adoption, you enable that scale. By using the satellites and having global coverage, you create more scale that's unrelated to location. Our system, unlike a mobile phone system where you put a tower where there are people, our system has coverage everywhere. There is no per bit cost difference between the person in the city and a person in a remote rural area.

FierceWirelessTech: Is that due to the spectrum?

Wyler: It's due to the spectrum and the system design.

FierceWirelessTech: How long have you been thinking about this system design?

Wyler: 2012 was the year of OneWeb. We acquired the spectrum rights and had to demonstrate how we would operate while ensuring no interference with the GEO operators. Once we accomplished that feat, then we had the spectrum and could design the system around the limitations. 

FierceWirelessTech: How did you hook up with Qualcomm and Sir Richard Branson?

Wyler: Richard [Branson] and Paul [Jacobs] have a strong vision and passion for the mission, and their respective entities have a strong understanding of enabling affordable Internet access for everyone. It's really important that we are highly aligned on that mission. We are a mission-driven company.

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OneWeb's Wyler: 'We've got a pretty clear path' to launch satellite constellation