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OneWeb Is Bankrupt – Who Will Buy Their Assets?

OneWeb has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. OneWeb CEO Adrian Steckel stated that they were “close to obtaining financing” but failed as a “consequence of the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis.” That is plausible, but they were also far behind SpaceX Starlink in launch cost and capacity. (SpaceX, remains open as an essential industry working on defense contracts, but two employees have tested positive for COVID-19) and financial analyst Tim Farrar said SpaceX faced a “near-term cash problem” even before the pandemic).

OneWeb has valuable assets—satellites in orbit, ground stations, flat panel antenna, progressive pitch, debris mitigation and other technologies, engineering and manufacturing experience, patents, a satellite factory, supply chains, memoranda of understanding with nations, spectrum, marketing deals, and other partnerships, etc. Who will acquire those assets?

Amazon comes immediately to mind as a potential buyer. Amazon is a relatively recent entry in the LEO constellation broadband race, which leaves it far behind SpaceX, and it is first and foremost an an infrastructure company. CEO Jeff Bezos has a lifelong interest in space and owns satellite-launch and ground-station service companies. He could also fund the purchase himself.

While Amazon is perhaps most likely to acquire the OneWeb’s assets, there are others. China is home to three LEO broadband startups that are also late to the LEO broadband race and have a ready funding source. Facebook might also be interested if they are seriously considering satellite broadband, .

Twitter user @megaconstellati has suggested that a government—the US, UK or France—might take over OneWeb. With its new Space Force and interest in lEO constellations, the US could consider taking over OneWeb, but that would not seem likely to appeal to a relatively anti-government administration. The same goes for the UK.

Not that it’s likely to happen, but one could argue that a global ISP should not be owned by a single nation or corporation—it should be a global asset—just as coronavirus and climate change are global liabilities. Those liabilities remind us that we live on a “pale blue dot.”

Update Jun 16, 2020:

If no company buys OneWeb by June 26th, their assets will be auctioned off on July 2nd. Last month Chris Forrester wrote that two Chinese companies were considering bids. He’s updated that saying four Chinese companies are now interested and the Amazon, SpaceX and Eutelsat bids are less likely. We’ll know how it turns out soon.

Update July 4, 2020:

A consortium of the British government and Bharti Global limited was the winning bidder in the OneWeb auction. They bid over $1 billion to fund the full restart of OneWeb’s business. The agreement remains subject to approval by OneWeb’s creditors, the Bankruptcy Court, and applicable regulators, with completion expected by the fourth quarter of 2020.

Bharti, through Bharti Airtel, is the third-largest mobile operator in the world, with over 425 million customers and a strong presence across South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. If successful, the project will bring fixed broadband to those and other customers. The British government hopes it can use the constellation for global positioning and timing since it lost access to the European Union global navigation satellite system as a result of Brexit and it will provide connectivity in rural areas and a presence in the space industry.

The U. S. government could possibly challenge the sale since OneWeb has significant manufacturing assets in Florida and the Treasury Department Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States is authorized “to review transactions that could result in control of a U.S. business by a foreign person (“covered transactions”), in order to determine the effect of such transactions on the national security of the United States.” I’d like to listen in on the call when Trump and Boris Johnson discuss that possibility!

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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