By: Ryan Randall
For as much as the world has become more connected due to advances in the exchange of ideas via the Internet, there is still a digital divide in many areas. According to
the International Telecommunication Union, more than half the world’s population (3.9 billion) was estimated to have no Internet access by the end of last year.
OneWeb is looking to bridge the worldwide divide by 2022 and is utilizing Brevard County’s space industry in the process. With headquarters at Kennedy Space Center’s Exploration Park, the company has plans to deploy 648 constellation satellites around Earth to provide affordable Internet access.
The idea behind OneWeb came from a trip founder Greg Wyler took to Rwanda in the mid-2000s. Attempting to install Internet to schools in the genocide-affected area, he noticed the Internet connectivity was poor, and the only way to provide better service was to use satellite connections, which would have cost $4,000 to $5,000 a month per Mbps (Megabit per second).
His experience in Rwanda was the spark for O3b Networks, a company Wyler started with the idea of using satellites to provide point-to-point connectivity that would emulate fiber. O3b was sold last summer to SES S.A.
Utilizing Brevard County’s space industry to manufacture and deploy satellites, OneWeb is looking to provide affordable Internet access for the world by 2022.
How the Technology Works
Despite the success of O3b, Wyler understood that to scale worldwide, connectivity would need to expand beyond the company’s mid-latitude satellites and high-speed fiber connections. Brian Holz, CEO of OneWeb and former executive VP at O3b, said OneWeb is geared to be global by extending cellular networks.
“It’s designed, and its capacity is designed, more towards a cellular capacity versus a fiber capacity, and we wanted to do that at a cost point affordable to individuals in developing and emerging world markets.”
In order to accomplish this goal, OneWeb is working with Qualcomm to develop technology that will allow it to deploy an LTE network that runs over the satellite, something that has never been done before. To ensure network consistency and keep costs low, the company will limit the eld of view by using satellite constellations that orbit 1,200 kilometers above Earth, compared to geosynchronous satellites, which orbit at 36,000 kilometers.
Holz explained the satellite is basically a network hub and will have cell towers linked to another hub at each of the 40 to 50 terrestrial gateways around the world. The cell tower will serve as a user terminal, allowing for data transmission with picocells on schools, houses and roadways. The satellites will also transmit data to OneWeb’s user terminals, which can be self-installed and operate with WiFi, LTE, 3G and 2G radios. The terminal’s LTE extension will also allow people walking by to roam onto OneWeb’s network. The company is looking at selling the capacity services to cellular operators worldwide and working with them to utilize their distribution networks. OneWeb also has a mission to connect approximately two million schools in the emerging and developing world by 2023.
“If you go back and look at the history of cable in the United States, they started by connecting the schools first; they were the first networks,” Holz said. “And in many places, the school is the center of the village, so by connecting the school, you’re creating a communications hub where people can come and use their devices.”
The Space Coast Attracts OneWeb
OneWeb looked at locations in Alabama, Colorado, Arizona, Virginia and Texas, as well as in Canada, England and France. As far as choosing Florida as a home, Holz credited the “positive and proactive” support from state and local officials as well as the region’s aerospace capabilities.
“We also looked at the resources that were here,” he said. “ the Space Coast and Florida as a whole have an awful lot of aerospace capability. It’s the second-biggest aerospace hub behind California in the United States, and third or fourth in the world in concentration of aerospace professionals.”
For the first time on the Space Coast, the satellites will be manufactured in Brevard County. OneWeb is also utilizing Blue Origin to launch the satellites. RUAG Space USA, a spacecraft structural supplier and thermal equipment company, will build the body of OneWeb’s satellites.
The company will employ 150 people by next year and has already hired 30 people from the Space Coast and Orlando areas. Holz expects approximately 100 of the 150 employees to be from the Space Coast. By 2019, OneWeb plans to employ 250 people. RUAG will hire 50 employees in Titusville and will also have a manufacturing and apprentice training program.
“We were simply a launch complex for years and years. Over time we were able to capture the assembly work of a launch vehicle, and that eventually morphed into the manufacturing of a launch vehicle. This, in turn, ties us directly into satellite manufacturing and assembly.” – Lynda Weatherman
A Plan of Self-Reliance
According to the Space Coast EDC’s Senior Director of Business Development Greg Weiner, the commission began work on bringing OneWeb to Brevard in December 2014. Weiner said site selection, the cost of a workforce, availability and ability to attract workers to the area were also an important part of the discussion with OneWeb.
Another key factor in getting OneWeb to Brevard County was financial assistance. The EDC worked with Space Florida, and they were able to secure commercial financing for OneWeb. Certain incentives were also provided by the state, which required a local financial match, eventually met by the North Brevard Economic Development Zone.
As OneWeb hopes to provide worldwide Internet access, those involved in Brevard County’s space industry hope the region’s diverse market continues to bring in companies from around the globe. For Space Florida’s Chief of Strategic Alliances Dale Ketcham, attracting private businesses helps attain the area’s goal of moving away from federal government reliance after taking significant financial hits due to the cancellation of the Apollo program in 1972 and the Space Shuttle program in 2011. Ketcham personally saw the effects of the cuts through his father, who sold property in Cocoa Beach in the ’70s.
“We just got hammered,” remembered Ketchum. “KSC went from a little over 30,000 employees down to about 12,000 in a period of about 18 months, and there wasn’t anything else in Brevard County for these people to do. There were thousands of homes people simply walked away from because they couldn’t pay their mortgages.”
A Maturing Space Industry
Ketcham also stressed the importance of OneWeb’s partner joining them on the Space Coast and how it may entice other companies in the future.
“We have every expectation that getting RUAG here will help move more satellite manufacturing to the area,” he said. “As RUAG settles in and we’re successful in bringing in some suppliers based on what OneWeb is doing, it will make it much easier to sell Florida as a satellite manufacturing and assembly activities hub in the future.”
For Space Coast EDC President and CEO Lynda Weatherman, in addition to the jobs and a $85 million economic impact, the Space Coast’s ability to bring in companies such as OneWeb and RUAG represents growth and diversification of the space industry.
“We were simply a launch complex for years and years,” she said. “Over time we were able to capture the assembly work of a launch vehicle, and that eventually morphed into the manufacturing of a launch vehicle. This, in turn, ties us directly into satellite manufacturing and assembly.”
All of this speaks to the resilience of the region and the maturing of its aerospace industry. Thanks to the foresight of companies like OneWeb and the efforts of both local and state entities to lure them here, the future is looking bright for the Space Coast and its aerospace endeavors.