Virgin Group and Qualcomm are leading investment in a company aiming to build a network of satellites to extend mobile coverage around the world.

A post by Virgin Group founder Richard Branson explained that the goal of OneWeb is to connect billions of people who don’t currently have access to the internet.

OneWeb terminals will act as small cells which can provide access to the surrounding area using WiFi, LTE, 3G or 2G, using operator partners’ licensed spectrum, or WiFi and LTE on unlicensed spectrum. The company has also been allotted radio spectrum to provide the internet services.

Some of the satellites will be launched by Virgin Galactic, the group’s division that plans to offer commercial sub-orbital flights but which is also developing a delivery service for satellites called LauncherOne.

Branson said the satellite order will be the biggest ever. Reuters reported that a network of 648 satellites is planned. The Virgin chief added that by the time the company completes the second ‘constellation’, it will have launched “more satellites than are currently in the sky”.

Reuters said the satellite network will cost between $1.5 billion and $2 billion. They will be positioned to orbit the earth at an altitude of around 750 miles.

The satellites should enable mobile operators to extend coverage to rural and remote areas. Partnering with OneWeb should also help provide internet access.

“With the spectrum and technology, coupled with strong partners, we look forward to advancing global connectivity,” said OneWeb founder and CEO Greg Wyler.

“We have a shared vision to bring connectivity to underserved areas around the world,” said Qualcomm executive chairman Paul Jacobs, adding that the company is looking to fund “initial technical feasibility work”.

No details about the level of investment made by Virgin or Qualcomm were disclosed.

There have been similar projects in the past, which have proved to be complicated and expensive, leading to their commercial failure. These include Globalstar, Iridium, Teledesic, Skybridge.

Internet giants Google and Facebook are also looking at ways to improve internet coverage globally.

Both have invested in drone technology, while Google’s Project Loon is looking at using helium-fuelled balloons located in the earth’s atmosphere that can provide internet signals.

Facebook’s team is also looking to make use of free-space optical communication (FSO) technology, which can transmit data in space using infrared laser beams.