There’s a new headstone in the satellite internet graveyard today. This one belongs to OneWeb, which, according to a report in the Financial Times, is preparing to file for chapter 11 bankruptcy protections and lay off most of its 500 staff. The report states that OneWeb began preparing to file for bankruptcy after it failed to secure $2 billion in new funding from the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, its largest investor.
Founded in 2012 by tech entrepreneur Greg Wyler, OneWeb was one of a handful of companies including SpaceX and Amazon that are racing to build giant constellations of high-speed internet satellites. OneWeb planned to operate a fleet of at least 650 satellites to blanket the entire Earth with broadband service and had raised nearly $3.5 billion from large investors like the Virgin Group, Qualcomm, and Airbus.
OneWeb planned to begin offering regional satellite internet service by the end of the year and to roll out global coverage shortly thereafter. But the world had other plans. The coronavirus pandemic and resulting market turbulence undermined the negotiations between OneWeb and SoftBank for $2 billion in funding, people familiar with the matter told WIRED.
“Venture finance is a high-risk game,” says Janice Starzyk, the vice president of commercial space at the analytics firm Bryce Space and Technology. “Right now a lot of finance companies are going to focus on their highest-priority investments, and SoftBank made the decision that this is not one of them.”
The news of OneWeb’s planned bankruptcy filing comes less than a week after the company launched its most recent batch of 34 internet satellites atop an Arianespace rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It was the company’s second launch of the year and brought the total number of OneWeb satellites in orbit to 74.
It’s too early to tell what will become of OneWeb’s assets as it moves through bankruptcy protection, people familiar with the proceedings told WIRED. OneWeb will retain enough employees to continue operating the satellites already in orbit, but most of the company’s 500 staffers will be laid off. As for the satellites, there aren’t enough in orbit to provide anything close to global or even regional coverage. It’s unclear whether they will be kept in orbit and used for limited internet service or intentionally deorbited by the company.
OneWeb is hardly the first company to succumb to the brutal economics of bathing the world in high speed internet. The main problem is that building and launching satellites is expensive, especially if you’re launching hundreds or thousands of them. In the 1990s, several companies attempted to connect the world with satellite constellations before going bankrupt. Teledesic, a company backed by Bill Gates, wanted to beam broadband internet from orbit, but only launched a single satellite before filing for bankruptcy protection in 2002. Iridium managed to launch a constellation of 66 satellites to deliver cell service across the entire Earth, but filed for bankruptcy in 1999 after it failed to attract enough customers to support its business.
“Large constellations are very capital intensive, and investors have to be extremely patient because the returns aren’t going to be immediate,” says Matt Desch, Iridium’s CEO. “It’s unfortunate that OneWeb’s investors didn’t have the patience.”
After it filed for bankruptcy, Iridium was bought for a fraction of the amount it had cost to build its satellite constellation and was retooled into a profitable business providing niche communication services and data transmission for internet-connected devices. But Desch thinks this sort of turnaround is unlikely to happen with OneWeb since it had only completed about 10 percent of its full constellation. “I’m sure there are a lot of people brainstorming about what can be done after bankruptcy with all the work that OneWeb has done over the last few years,” says Desch.
The new race to build internet satellite constellations feels a bit like history repeating itself. It’s far from certain that OneWeb’s main competitors—SpaceX and Amazon—will find enough customers for their own internet satellite services to stay in business. “There’s clearly an insatiable need for bandwidth, but there’s not an insatiable desire to pay for it,” says Starzyk.
During a keynote presentation at a satellite industry conference last month, even Elon Musk acknowledged the challenging economics of SpaceX’s Starlink internet constellation. “Guess how many constellations didn’t go bankrupt?” Musk asked his audience. “Zero. It’d be a big step to have more than zero in the not-bankrupt category.”
More Great WIRED Stories
- The mom who took on Purdue Pharma for its OxyContin marketing
- A critical internet safeguard is running out of time
- Covid-19 is bad for the auto industry—and even worse for EVs
- Going the distance (and beyond) to catch marathon cheaters
- Uncanny portraits of perfectly symmetrical pets
- ? Why can’t AI grasp cause and effect? Plus: Get the latest AI news
- ✨ Optimize your home life with our Gear team’s best picks, from robot vacuums to affordable mattresses to smart speakers