OneWeb is bankrupt. General Paul Kagame had hoped that OneWeb’s satellites would provide Rwanda with cheap broadband. Kagame had previously pursued white elephant projects to provide broadband to all Rwandans. These included building a tower on top of Mt Kalisimbi and the US$120 million fibre optic cables connecting all the Rwandan districts. These ended in failure.
OneWeb was supposed to be the final solution. OneWeb’s 74 small satellites operate in low earth orbit at approximately 1,200 kilometres, transmitting and receiving in the Ku band of the radio frequency spectrum. Prior to OneWeb bankruptcy in March 2020, it had been considering to quadruple the size of the satellite constellation by adding 1,972 additional satellites. These satellites included one dedicated to Rwanda.
Kagame and OneWeb’s founder, Greg Wyler, have a 16-year bittersweet relationship. Here are the highlights:
- In 2004, Kagame apparently met Wyler at an event, and Kagame immediately invited Wyler to bring broadband to Rwanda. Wyler set up his firm, Terracom, as a vehicle to provide broadband across Rwanda.
- In 2006, Kagame asked Wyler’s group to buy Rwandatel, Rwanda’s sole landline telephone company owned by the government. Terracom bought Rwandatel’s assets for US$20 million.
- In 2006, Wyler attempted a share-swap with Miko Rwayitare’s Swiss-based GV Telecom. Kagame swiftly denounced the deal and declared it ‘null and void’.
- In 2007, Kagame kicked Wyler out, grabbed Rwandatel from him, and sold it to Libyan Investment Portfolio (LAP) Green for US$100 million. LAP Green promised to invest an additional US$177 million over the following 5 years.
- In 2011, Rwandatel collapsed.
- In 2013, Kagame sold the remains of Rwandatel to Liquid Telecom from South Africa for US$4 million.
Meanwhile, in the US:
- In 2012, Wyler founded OneWeb to provide internet services to “hundreds of millions of potential users residing in places without existing broadband access”.
- In 2017, in weeklong tournament that votes for most powerful executive in the U.S. telecom industry, the top two contenders were T-Mobile’s John Legere versus OneWeb’s Greg Wyler. Kagame took to Twitter to campaign for Wyler who won the prize.
- In 2018, Kagame invited Wyler to address Smart Africa Summit in Kigali.
- In 2019, in partnership with Kagame government, OneWeb launched a satellite named Icyerekezo on February 26 to “bridge the digital divide” in Rwandan rural schools where internet access is zero.
- In 2019, on March 29, Kagame and Wyler met in San Francisco to review OneWeb progress.
- In March 2020, OneWeb went bankrupt.
Obviously this is not the end of Kagame-Wyler bittersweet relationship. There is more drama ahead. Stay tuned.