Qualcomm teams with Branson on OneWeb satellite venture as SpaceX CEO pursues rival constellation

The race to launch a new constellation of satellites just got a little more real as two big endeavors emerged with famous backers last week, one involving wireless-technology pioneer Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) and Richard Branson, and the other with SpaceX CEO and Tesla Motors co-founder Elon Musk.

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Sir Richard Branson (left) and Qualcomm Executive Chairman Paul Jacobs are teaming up for OneWeb. (Image by Mark Greenberg/Virgin.com)

Branson and Qualcomm are throwing their support behind the satellite-Internet company OneWeb, the project forged by former Google Satellite executive Greg Wyler. Similar to some other projects, including Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) Project Loon, OneWeb's idea is to make high-speed Internet service available to billions of people who don't currently have access.

Both Branson and Qualcomm Executive Chairman Paul Jacobs will have a seat on OneWeb's board. "We have a shared vision to bring connectivity to underserved areas around the world," Jacobs said in a press release. "We are pleased to join Virgin as an initial investor, and we look forward to helping fund initial technical feasibility work for the satellite system."

While Bloomberg reported that Musk's satellite constellation was designed to speed up the general flow of data on the Internet and deliver high-speed, low-cost Internet services to the billions without decent Web access, a person present at a Seattle launch event on Friday told The Seattle Times that Musk also told the crowd that the satellite endeavor is "all for the purpose of generating revenue to pay for a city on Mars." The satellites are to be designed by software and aerospace engineers in SpaceX's new engineering office in Redmond, Wash., the Times reported.

Bloomberg reported that Musk and Wyler have known each other for years, but Musk said they have a fundamental disagreement about the architecture, and he thinks there should be two competing systems. Meanwhile, Branson told Bloomberg that he doesn't think Musk has the rights to the spectrum that he needs and that Musk should team up with OneWeb to improve their chances of success.

OneWeb, founded in 2012 under the name WorldVu, says it will be the one to introduce the first-ever telecom-class microsatellites. "This projected fleet of 648 micro satellites is intended to provide low-latency, high-speed Internet access directly to small user terminals deployed around the world," it said in a press release.

OneWeb also said its system will extend the networks of mobile operators globally, enabling them to provide coverage to rural and remote areas, which historically have not been economically feasible to connect using terrestrial networks. "OneWeb plans to work with local operator partners to provide this access," the release stated.

OneWeb's terminals will act as small cells, with the ability to provide access to the surrounding area via a Wi-Fi, LTE, 3G or 2G connection using an operator partner's licensed spectrum, or only LTE or Wi-Fi on unlicensed spectrum.

Branson told CNBC that OneWeb's strategy is an efficient way of getting satellites into space--much more efficient than big rockets of the past. "We can literally take off every three or four hours," he said.

"We plan to put an initial array of 648 satellites up, and if that's successful, we want to go to 2,400 satellites," the founder of Virgin Group told CNBC. "The idea is to reach the billions of people who don't have Internet access and to do so with reception and good prices."

OneWeb will launch the 250-pound satellites with the help of Virgin Galactic's LauncherOne, a rocket specially designed to more efficiently launch cargo into orbit. 

Both Musk and Branson are well-known space buffs, but Branson is more familiar to the wireless industry, having famously invited CTIA trade show attendees to join him on a flight to Mars during an April Fool's Day keynote in 2008. He founded Virgin Mobile USA in 2002, and in one of his signature flamboyant stunts he wore a mock Virgin Mobile phone around Times Square to promote the brand and shake up the market.

For more:
- see this press release
- see The Verge article
- see this LA Times article
- see The Seattle Times story
- see the CNBC coverage

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