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Bharti Enterprises invests in constellation satellite Internet provider OneWeb


OneWeb has raised $500 million from Bharti Enterprises and its current investors. With this investment Bharti will acquire a minority stake in the company as well as get a representation on its board of directors. OneWeb’s existing investors include AirBus, Hughes, CocaCola, Qualcomm and Virgin.

OneWeb plans to provide high speed internet access via 648 satellites, which it plans to launch and make available to consumers by 2019. The company, formerly known as WorldVu, will provide small user terminals which will connect to these satellites and transmit internet to the surrounding areas through LTE, WiFi, 2G and 3G.

According to the company, if a Bharti user walks near one of its terminals and there is no cell tower around, the phone will connect to its terminal and operate as normal, charging the user via operator billing. Other than this, the terminals can be used as access points for schools and health centres, as weather and navigation system for business and commercial airlines and to provide emergency services in areas affected by natural disasters like earthquakes.

The company mentions its small cell terminals will be 3GPP compatible, enabling them for use with various telecom operators using their existing infrastructure. As for the spectrum, the company will connect devices either on unlicensed frequencies or using the frequencies of operators that it has partnered with.

Google’s project Loon: In February Google had said it was looking to bring Project Loon, its balloon powered Internet service to India, and was working with the government for the same. Mohammad Gawdat, VP of business Innovation at Google X, said then that the technology giant will be looking at commercial format for the project by 2016. The company had partnered with Australia’s largest telco Telstra to run a pilot of the project with 20 balloons on a part of its 2.6GhZ spectrum.

Note that Google’s Greg Wyler had left the company to form OneWeb, after Google had hired him in 2013 to launch a constellation of internet serving satellites. Subsequently, OneWeb secured investments from Virgin Galactic and Qualcomm to launch its own internet satellite constellation.

Facebook satellites: Social network giant Facebook was also looking to ‘build drones, satellites and lasers to deliver the internet to everyone’, founder Mark Zuckerberg had revealed back in March 2014. However, it looks like the estimated cost of $500 million was too prohibitive, and the scheme has now been abandoned.

Our take: Using satellites for internet sounds like a great plan, but we wonder if it will actually be practical to maintain around 650 satellites stably over a long period of time while being profitable. Facebook backed out of its satellite plan and Google is only focusing on its balloon driven project which sounds like a cluster of satellites might be too expensive to launch and maintain. However, OneWeb might be able to pull it off with the help of its investors, which include chipmaker Qualcomm, Virgin Atlantic which has a commercial spaceline in the works, and AirBus which has experience in launch vessels and other space projects.

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