OneWeb emerged from bankruptcy protection on Friday, poised to resume satellite launches and bring is constellation into service. The company also has a new CEO, and a satellite production facility that won’t be moving to the UK after all.
OneWeb has a strong social purpose to improve the world’s access to information, which I share. It has great talent, a compelling commercial opportunity, and is supported by committed and knowledgeable owners and investors.– Incoming OneWeb CEO Neil Masterson
Launches resume 17 December
The next batch of 36 satellites (along with myriad supplies for the support team) made the trip from the manufacturing facility in Florida to the Vostochny Cosmodrome earlier this week.
They will be integrated into the Arianespace Soyuz rocket, with a planned launch date target of 17 December. The company intends to continue its launch cadence through 2022, completing its constellation of 650 satellites.
The next few launches will also enable the company to bring some of the commercial connectivity services online later in 2021, though that will be focused on the UK and Arctic regions. Full global coverage will depend on the complete constellation entering service in 2022.
Reaching that point could also require an additional infusion of cash. While Bharti and the UK pushed $1 billion in to the revival reports suggest another $1.2 billion will be needed to bring the service to life.
Keeping the Florida factory
During the investment discussions over the summer the UK government tipped that it might be interesting in bringing some manufacturing capacity “back home” to help support the UK’s space-focused developments. That appear, for now, to have been a flight of fancy. While UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Alok Sharma continues to talk up the “chance to build on our strong advanced manufacturing and services base in the UK, creating jobs and technical expertise,” it is clear that such a move will not include building the OneWeb satellites.
The Prime Minister expressed similar optimism in manufacturing on Friday:
But the Florida factory remains the key manufacturing site, with no indications that another assembly line will be needed nor built. In a statement the company is clear, “Due to investment decisions made by the new shareholders, the joint venture facility with Airbus in Florida, USA was re-activated and the dual production lines brought back into service.” The UK can talk up the idea of bringing the manufacturing home, but the money says that’s a bad idea for now.
New CEO at the helm
With the emergence from bankruptcy the company also appointed a new CEO, Neil Masterson, formerly co-Chief Operating Officer of Thomson Reuters. He succeeds Adrian Steckel, who continues as an Adviser to the Board. Adrian joined OneWeb as CEO in September 2018 and has guided OneWeb through three successful launches, delivering 74 satellites into orbit, and securing priority spectrum use rights for OneWeb.
Will it fly for airlines?
It is no secret that OneWeb sees the commercial aviation market as a component of its operational success. The company announced a Commercial Aviation division, focused on delivering an inflight connectivity solution to airlines in September 2019. That operation took a hit with the bankruptcy, but it did not disappear. It still depends on developing the necessary phased array antenna technology and support infrastructure to convince airlines that choosing OneWeb is a safe long-term investment. OneWeb VP Commercial Aviation Ben Griffin previously expressed optimism on the terminal front, though the market has seen its share of failures and bankruptcies. But announcements in recent weeks once again bring a tinge of optimism that suppliers might actually pull it off in 2021.
And, of course, OneWeb is not the only LEO constellation vying for potential airline services. Starlink from SpaceX and Telesat have both suggested they also want to serve the market.
Also worth noting on this front is that Bharti is a founding member of the Seamless Air Alliance, a group aiming to smooth the installation, operation, and billing services functions for inflight connectivity. That it now also owns part of a satellite network certainly helps its ambitions on that front.
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