The founder of the taxpayer-backed broadband operator OneWeb is masterminding a controversial plan by Rwanda to lay claim to valuable swathes of the skies and scatter Earth’s orbit with hundreds of thousands more satellites, it has been claimed.
Greg Wyler, a former Google executive, is understood to be behind a filing to the United Nations by Rwanda’s space agency that calls for 327,000 small satellites in a low orbit to create a global wireless broadband network to challenge OneWeb and Elon Musk’s Starlink.
Mr Wyler, 51, is no longer involved with OneWeb following the unusual deal last year led by the Government which rescued it from bankruptcy. Now two industry sources said he is behind Rwanda’s project, codenamed “Cinnamon”, revealed last month.
It has triggered concern and speculation in the space industry over its true origins and ultimate fate. If the plans are approved by the UN, even if Rwanda never launches a satellite it could sell its rights on.
One source said the project was “strategically very serious… 300,000 satellites with minimal regulation up for sale to the highest bidder”.
How low-orbiting satellites work
Two industry sources said Mr Wyler, 51, a friend of the Rwandan President Paul Kagame, was involved in the UN filings, although he is not named in them. A former adviser to Mr Wyler, Tony Azzarelli of consultancy Access.Space, is named.
Satellite companies typically shroud their plans in secrecy. Mr Musk’s rocketry company SpaceX, for example, first applied to the UN in Norway for a project called “Steam” in 2014, which became Starlink.
A spokesman for Mr Azzarelli said he could not comment on independent consulting work. Mr Wyler did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Last month Francis Ngabo, the chief executive of Rwanda’s space agency, said: “Space is no longer reserved for a handful of countries, as it was in much of the 20th Century. This filing reflects that fact, and is a signal of our ambitions for the near future.”
OneWeb | A tangled history
Mr Wyler’s ties to the Rwandan government date back nearly two decades. He ran national telecoms firm Rwandatel, which later collapsed in 2011. He also founded satellite firm O3B, which was sold to Luxembourg’s SES for over $700m.
He then founded OneWeb, which attracted investment from the Rwandan government and raised a total of $3.4bn to build a constellation of hundreds of broadband satellites. It went bankrupt in March 2020, with Mr Wyler owning 11pc, but was rescued by the UK Government. Mr Wyler is no longer involved in the company.
Satellite companies Starlink and OneWeb have been racing to blanket the sky in low-orbit satellites that can provide broadband connectivity to remote areas, spending billions of pounds. Starlink so far has more than 1,800 in orbit, while OneWeb has 322.
The Rwandan government did not respond to a request for comment.