Greg Wyler, OneWeb: Shooting for the stars
Satellite entrepreneur Greg Wyler has made it his mission to connect the most remote parts of the world. He speaks to Agnes Stubbs about his latest venture OneWeb and what it takes to fulfil the mission.
The race is truly underway connect the world’s ‘other three billion’.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg unveiled his plan to connect two-thirds of the world through global internet project Internet.org. Elon Musk, who launched Tesla Motors and Hyperloop, received a $1 billion investment from Google and Fidelity to get his SpaceX satellite programme off the ground. Meanwhile, Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin aim to beam internet access down to the most inaccessible areas through Project Loon, a global network of high-altitude internet-service balloons.
Then there’s Greg Wyler, a man whose passion for bringing affordable high-speed internet access stretches back over a decade.
Taking Rwanda online
Wyler’s career in bringing connectivity to underserved markets began in 2002 after a meeting with Theogene Rudasingwa, then chief of staff to Rwandan president Paul Kagame. That encounter would lead Wyler to launch Terracom, a mobile operator which provided 3G network to Rwandans.
“I had gone to the country purely just to see if there’s a way I could help,” Wyler says of post-genocide Rwanda. With the support of the government, he then started connecting schools to the internet and in the process, saw the impact it had on people’s lives.
“Friends on the ground started to count on me to provide these services. Eventually we started to build it as a more formal company. We built the first 3G network in Africa, followed by fibre to the home. This was all very small-scale but we saw traction and excitement. It became clear that internet access was a super important foundational requirement for poverty eradication, regardless of location,” Wyler says.
Terracom quickly became a success and in 2005, acquired government-owned RwandaTel for $20 million. However, the young start-up struggled with the asset heavy RwandaTel and two years later was acquired by the Rwandan government.
The other three billion
While Wyler’s venture in Rwanda was short-lived, it provided him with the experience and inspiration he needed for his next project. While in Rwanda, he noticed the country’s poor international connectivity, which was reliant on satellites stationed approximately 22,000 miles away from the surface of the earth.
To address that challenge, Wyler came up with the idea that satellites could be brought much closer to earth to provide faster, near fibre-optic speeds to customers on the ground. His idea came to life in 2007 through the launch of O3b Networks, which aims to put satellites approximately 5,000 miles from the earth.
Based in the UK’s Channel Islands, O3b presently has 12 satellites in medium-earth orbit, launching its first set of satellites in June 2013. To date the company has raised over $1.3 billion from shareholders and lenders such as Google, HSBC and SES, one of the world’s largest satellite operators.
“It was a big deal,” he says. “I had to raise a billion dollars. But I felt I was in a position to take a shot at it because of my history. Fortunately I did, and O3b is up and running, and doing fantastically.”
Wyler stepped down from his role as CEO in 2009 and has since remained a major shareholder.
Today the satellites are bringing connectivity to emerging markets such as Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, East Timor and South Sudan. O3b is reportedly the largest internet provider in the Pacific. Its CEO Steve Collar has claimed that the company should break even by the middle of 2016 on $100 million in annual revenue.
When asked why he is no longer at the helm at O3b, Wyler explains: “I’m not super interested in being CEO. My strength is more in the architecture and vision, and helping to guide, as opposed to the role of management. In general, I’ve always felt like the CEO position is for a period, not forever. I do it just to get things moving.”
Taking OneWeb to the world
After a brief stint at Google, during which he led the led the company’s efforts to beam internet connectivity from satellites, Wyler began work on his third and most ambitious project to date: WorldVu Satellites, later renamed OneWeb.
OneWeb’s mission is an audacious one. In comparison to O3b’s dozen satellites, OneWeb will aim to send 648 micro-satellites – each weighing 285 pounds– into low-earth orbit of 750 miles. While its mission is similar to O3b’s, OneWeb will provide an even wider coverage for its customers through the scale of the project. The project is estimated to cost up to $2.5 billion, of which Wyler says he has invested millions of dollars himself.
The emphasis has been on delivering an even lower latency at a more affordable price: “The cost structure is low enough that we can do something that is affordable for people,” he says.
Chipmaker Qualcomm and Richard Branson’s Virgin Group were early investors of the company, which counts major telecoms operators and ISPs as potential customers. “OneWeb enables telecoms operators to extend their coverage into rural markets,” says Wyler.
The system will serve primarily as a global mobile backhaul system for network operators, particularly in markets in Africa and Latin America that are lacking fibre infrastructure.
“As population density and GDP decline, it becomes very hard for mobile operators to profitably and economically provide coverage to those populations. We are a technology that enables rural connectivity and coverage,” he says.
Telecoms operators, he says, have been doing a “fantastic job” of providing capacity, and he views OneWeb’s technology as complementary to mobile networks.
“We are an additional support agent for telecoms operators. When they talk to regulators, they can then advise them on how OneWeb can enable them to bring capacity into rural markets,” says Wyler. “We want to be their best friend in enabling connectivity.”
Wyler’s initiative to build a worldwide, high-speed, satellite internet has gained numerous supporters. In addition to Virgin Group and Qualcomm, OneWeb received another boost in June 2015 when it announced a $500 million series A round, attracting investors such as Airbus Group, Bharti Enterprises, Intelsat, Totalplay, Hughes Network System, and The Coca-Cola Company.
The financing will go towards advancing its satellite technology as well as on-the-ground stations for mobile operators to distribute internet access.
In addition to funding the venture, it also entered into an alliance with Intelsat, aimed at combining the two networks. Intelsat’s satellite network is located in geostationary orbit while OneWeb’s satellites, when completed, will be in low-earth orbit. IntelSat has a $25 million stake in OneWeb.
“We have been very fortunate that the industry has highly regarded our design, system and plans,” says Wyler.
He adds that governments around the world have also strongly applauded the mission of OneWeb: “Clearly we are building something that is very open and inclusive so governments themselves can participate by getting the capacity and spectrum.”
A formidable leadership team spanning decades of entrepreneurship across various industries sits on OneWeb’s board of directors. It includes Qualcomm executive chairman Paul Jacobs, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and Sunil Mittal, founder and chairman of Bharti Enterprises.
“At a high level, they saw the impact of the mission,” Wyler says of the trio. Qualcomm, Wyler says, will supply the key technology behind OneWeb’s satellite handovers and chips. “Qualcomm is a company with 21,000 patents and an engineering pool that is almost rivalled by no one, in terms of communications and handover technologies,” says Wyler.
Branson’s involvement in the project is closely linked to his highly-publicised aviation ambitions. “Richard has a wide span of telecoms and airlines experience, as well as Virgin Galactic. He really is multi-dimensional. Add to that, he has a strong interest in accomplishing the mission,” Wyler says. “This will have a strong impact on the aviation industry as it will enable high-speed connectivity for airlines which will improve their efficiency and safety, as well as provide better customer experience for customers.”
He is equal in his praise of Bharti Enterprises’ Mittal. “Very few people have connected or built as much rural connectivity as Sunil on a global basis. He has built out rural connectivity with hundreds of millions of customers all over the world, and understand the challenges that are facing these areas. It’s easy to talk about rural connectivity from a nice office in a city in a developed country, but to understand the needs and challenges on the ground – that is something that Sunil is an expert at,” says Wyler.
Wyler’s passion for his work is shared by his family, which join him on the road wherever possible. In fact, his 10-year old daughter has even delivered speeches at conferences. “It’s a family affair,” he says.
Wyler says the company is focussed on improving the performance of its satellites, which presently deliver at least 8Gbps of throughput. “We definitely would like to accelerate those advances but we have to do it in a cautious and thoughtful way,” says Wyler.
Unlike other failed satellite initiatives such as Teledesic and SkyBridge, Wyler claims OneWeb is destined to succeed because of the sophistication of its technology.
But there is clearly a bigger force behind the mission and its Wyler himself, and his belief that connectivity is fundamental to societal growth.
“If you want cleaner water, better healthcare, better education, better civic experimentation – connectivity is foundational,” says Wyler. “You realise you need bigger and better solutions to eradicate poverty. Building this system could really solve that foundational problem.”