This is a story about the guy who wants to connect billions of unconnected people to the internet. No, not Elon Musk. And not Mark Zuckerberg. It’s the story of Greg Wyler, CEO of OneWeb, a new startup that aims to send thousands of satellites into orbit by 2018, in hopes of delivering fiber-optic-fast internet to the remotest parts of the world.
It’s not an usual mission. Companies like Facebook, Google, and SpaceX are betting on drones, balloons, and satellites to achieve much the same thing. It’s anyone’s guess who will win what many are calling the new space race, but in an in-depth feature published today in Businessweek, journalist Ashlee Vance provides some pretty compelling reasons as to why Wyler might just have a shot. The first reason: he’s got a heck of a head start.
Wyler first became interested in connecting remote parts of the world to the internet back in 2002 after a chance encounter with the Rwandan president’s chief of staff. That meeting compelled Wyler to launch Terracom, a telecommunications company that laid fiber optic cable and set up a 3G network to connect Rwandans to cell phone and internet service. “The mindset in the world at the time was that internet infrastructure was not a high priority,” Wyler told Vance. “I thought that was wrong. When you have good internet access, you have economic growth.”
Terracom became a commercial success, but while Rwandans could send data easily throughout the country, sending and receiving data internationally was still a challenge because it relied on satellites stationed some 22,000 miles away from Earth. If he could bring those satellites closer to Earth and use more of them, Wyler figured, he might be able to offer people on the ground faster speeds.
Wyler tested this model with a company called O3b, which operates 12 satellites 5,000 miles from Earth. Those satellites are already connecting large portions of the world, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to small island chains to Royal Carribean cruise ships. According to Businessweek, O3b is now the largest internet provider in the Pacific.
But for Wyler, that’s not enough. Now, as founder of OneWeb, he wants to bring even more coverage to the world, by setting up a constellation of hundreds of mini-satellites, which will live 750 miles away from the Earth’s surface, a project that will likely cost $2 billion, according to Wyler. That’s substantially less than Elon Musk’s $10 billion plan to launch his own system of satellites, but it’s still a hefty amount, which is why OneWeb has landed heavyweight investors like Virgin Group and Qualcomm.
The plan, for now, is to sell small antennae that can receive the satellites’ signals to individuals, schools, businesses, and hospitals around the world. According to Businessweek, three of these satellites should cover an areas the size of India.
OneWeb has arguably made more progress in this space than any of its better known contemporaries, and yet, as Vance points out, Wyler is now treading on territory that has crippled other companies in the past. But Wyler argues that the technology itself is now more sophisticated, and therefore, more viable.
Be that as it may, to say that what Wyler is pursuing is a long shot would be an understatement, particularly in the face of so much high-powered, well-funded competition. And yet, Wyler tells Vance that he’s not scared of people like Mark Zuckerberg joining the cause. “He has a much bigger pedestal than I do. I’ve been trying to get people to understand that connectivity is a fundamental layer for societal and economic growth,” he told Businessweek, adding, “The other thing that’s great is that I know our system works.”