Sir Richard Branson is jumping into the satellite Internet arena with OneWeb, a partnership between Branson’s Virgin Galactic and telecom giant Qualcomm. Beaming Internet from satellites to consumers is a pricey venture for all involved, but it’s the simplest way to get to the 4.4 billion people across the globe who don’t currently have Internet. And Branson plans to do it with a fleet of 648 satellites–half the number of the 1,235 active satellites currently orbiting Earth.
Branson is touting OneWeb’s altruism in bringing Internet to the masses, but judging by his competition, there’s clearly financial incentive, too. Last March, Facebook announced that its satellite network would spread its social platform to more corners of the world, while Google announced its own upcoming fleet last June. Google’s plans for a $1-$3 billion constellation of Internet-beaming satellites starts with 180 smaller satellites weighing about 250 pounds, illustrating the push toward lighter, cheaper “microsats” that make these grand networks seem more achievable.
Satellite Internet’s past is littered with such graves as Iridium Satellite (bankruptcy in 1998) and the Microsoft-backed Teledesic (halted in 2002), but given the rise of private launch systems, it’s easy to see why microsat constellations are getting folks excited–Branson most of all, since he’s got a launch system of his very own.
Virgin Galactic partner Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X prize in 2004 as the first private commercial ship to reach atmospheric space (33,000 feet), and Branson’s betting that the same tactic–strapping a rocket under reusable lifter WhiteKnightTwo and launching it from 50,000 feet–will be more cost-effective than launching payloads from the ground. And it’ll need to be affordable, if OneWeb plans to launch 648 tiny satellites to complete its network.
The delivery rocket, LauncherOne, aims to deliver payloads up to 500 lbs., which places OneWeb’s satellites firmly in microsatellite (and possibly small satellite) territory. This delivery method might put OneWeb ahead of other satellite Internet networks, though Virgin Galactic is struggling to earn back its reputation after its SpaceShipTwo test spacecraft broke up mid-flight last October, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other. Despite the setbacks, Virgin Galactic has been selling LauncherOne delivery space since 2012 with anticipated launches next year.