SpaceX internet competitor OneWeb is back in action after bankruptcy

OneWeb, a UK-based company racing to build a constellation of satellites to beam internet service to people back on Earth, completed its first launch since being bought out of bankruptcy earlier this year.

Thirty-six satellites launched into orbit on Friday aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket, which OneWeb purchased from the European aerospace firm Arianespace.

Those satellites will join 74 others that OneWeb launched to space before it declared bankruptcy in March, citing trouble securing additional funding as investors tightened their belts in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. OneWeb’s largest financial backer for most of its existence was Softbank, which had been under growing pressure from its investors to steer clear of riskier companies after a series of bad bets on tech firms.

OneWeb paused operations for most of 2020 as it underwent Chapter 11 restructuring. The British government and India-based Bharti Global became OneWeb’s primary shareholders after they put $1 billion into the venture during bankruptcy proceedings.

Building a massive constellation of internet-beaming satellites is no easy feat: Several companies tried and failed to bring such a business model to life in the 1990s, but all of them either went under, threw in the towel or drastically altered their business plan after realizing such a plan was far more expensive than previously thought.

But a cohort of companies is trying again, and OneWeb’s stiffest competition will come from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has already launched roughly 1,000 satellites, brought its service to early beta testers, and is expecting to launch its commercial business next year.

The company, which says its constellation will require only 650 satellites, plans to debut its service by the end of 2021 and will focus on delivering services to businesses rather than directly to consumers.