The OneWeb satellite venture says it has raised $500 million in funding for its plan to put more than 600 satellites in orbit to provide low-cost global Internet access.
OneWeb also announced deals with Virgin Galactic for 39 launches on its yet-to-be completed LauncherOne rocket, and with Europe's Arianespace consortium for 21 launches on Russian-built Soyuz rockets. OneWeb called it the "largest commercial rocket acquisition ever."
"The dream of fully bridging the digital divide is on track to be a reality in 2019," Greg Wyler, OneWeb's founder, said Thursday in a news release.
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The announcement marks the latest volley in an Internet space race that also involves Google, SpaceX and other high-profile players. Both OneWeb and SpaceX are aiming to establish satellite constellations that would provide broadband Internet service to the billions of people around the world who can't currently get it. Access-less markets also are being targeted by Google's balloon-based Project Loon and the fleet of drones being planned by Facebook's Internet.org.
OneWeb plans to have hundreds of Airbus-built satellites launched, beginning in late 2017 and building up to the start of service in 2019. The venture already has clearance for its satellite service from the International Telecommunication Union, but if it doesn't start broadcasting by 2019 it may lose that right.
Virgin Galactic said its agreement with OneWeb includes options for 100 more satellite launches. "It's a historic project that we're very excited to be a part of," Virgin Galactic CEO George T. Whitesides told NBC News. "It has the potential to change the way people connect."
OneWeb's investors now include Airbus Group, Bharti Enterprises, Hughes Network Systems, Intelsat, Qualcomm, Coca-Cola, Virgin Group and Totalplay. But even $500 million or $1 billion won't be enough to build out the complete system. In March, Wyler told NBC News that the first phase of OneWeb's network would cost about $2 billion to set up.
Alan Boyle is the science editor for NBC News Digital. He joined MSNBC.com at its inception in July 1996, and took on the science role in July 1997 with the landing of NASA's Mars Pathfinder probe. Boyle is responsible for coverage of science and space for NBCNews.com.
Boyle joined NBCNews.com from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where he was the foreign desk editor from 1987 to 1996. Boyle has won awards for science journalism from numerous organizations, including the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Association of Science Writers. Boyle is the author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference." He lives in Bellevue, Wash.