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Sunil Bharti Mittal talks renewed faith in hidden gem OneWeb

Sunil Bharti Mittal is one of India’s richest business people, and is worth over $10 billion according to Forbes. He is the founder and chairman of Bharti Enterprises, one of India’s leading conglomerates with diversified interests in telecom, insurance, real estate, and agriculture, in addition to other ventures. Recently, Mittal has made news in the satellite sector as he has joined forces with the U.K. government, investing in OneWeb to pull the company out of bankruptcy and bring a new dynamic to the Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) operator.

This was his second time getting involved with OneWeb. Bharti Enterprises was part of the group including The Coca-Cola Company and Intelsat that invested in into the business in 2015, but later sold the stake to SoftBank. In this wide-ranging interview, Mittal talks candidly about his renewed faith in OneWeb, how he had forgotten about the company before renewing his interest, what he thinks of SpaceX’s strategy, and why he thinks the investment in the “damaged gem” OneWeb was worth the risk.

Mittal: I come from the world of telecommunications, and I have been here for the last 25 years. I have had some other business interests, but this has really been my life. What we have seen is that it is almost impossible to cover the last billion people with fiber or radio terrestrial networks. It is too expensive and too time consuming and for the last 25 years, me and my entire telecoms fraternity have tried and tried, but have not been able to go to the last unconnected people. Then there are areas you can never connect such as oceans, aviation, mountains, deserts, forests, and you need satellite.

Today, they rely on poorer quality satellite in GEO [Geostationary Orbit] to provide services, with very long lead times to get signals. The latency is very high, the speeds are not great. The industrial logic for having something that can deliver a 4G service or 5G service on the ground from the sky is quite compelling. A lot of people have tried in the past — Iridium and Globalstar have tried but not succeeded. The time has come now for that to be efficiently developed.

I was the fourth industrial partner in OneWeb when we launched it five ago years in London, with Sir Richard Branson, Paul Jacobs [of Qualcomm], and Tom Enders from Airbus. Greg Wyler was the founder. He is a bundle of energy, very bright, at times a bit chaotic, but an extremely bright person. I signed onto it and was one of the principle shareholders. But two years into it, I realized there were too many pushes and pulls from different shareholders and I couldn’t see the company moving in the direction I wanted. I sold my stake to SoftBank, and SoftBank then bankrolled it for another $2 billion, totaling an investment of $3.3 billion before it went into bankruptcy.

I had forgotten about it, to be honest with you. But then we got an invitation from the British government and I already knew about this company. My only request was that you really need to commit yourself. You can’t just give a $500 million subsidy and run it. We will need the power of the British government behind this and they were very keen to save this vital asset in space. They committed to $500 million, and then we committed to that, and they gave us the chance to do the commercial aspects of this project.

This is what we have done: We have bought the supply chain into motion again. We have renewed every contract, started up the factory again, satellites were getting manufactured. We contracted all 16 launches again and did a lot of work of hiring people. Within 45 days of taking over the company, we had returned to flight, and at 35-40 milliseconds, you will have mobile network type of quality anywhere in the world. Via Satellite

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