UK takes on Elon Musk in broadband space race

They are invisible to the naked eye, but they can let a ray of light through an astronomer’s telescope. Above our heads, the constellation of small satellites orbiting the Earth expands every month. Often no larger than a refrigerator, they are part of a new space race in which rivals compete to transmit broadband Internet to the most difficult-to-reach places on Earth.

The pioneers are Starlink, backed by American tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, and OneWeb, which is partly owned by the British taxpayer. The latter’s plan to build a network of 650 satellites is a centerpiece of the UK’s space strategy, unveiled in September.

In 2020, OneWeb was facing insolvency and the government was persuaded to bail it out. For Boris Johnson it was a godsend. The UK had been rejected by the Brexit of the European Union’s Galileo satellite project, and Dominic Cummings, technology expert and senior adviser, was touting the network as a way back to space.

OneWeb at the time focused on using satellites to provide accurate positioning information for anything from smartphone maps to emergency services tracking.

Johnson’s squandering £ 400 million of taxpayers’ money on a 20% stake was seen by Cummings as a perfect example of the high-risk, high-reward investment the government needed to avoid staying in the slow tech lane. . Others called it a pointless gamble on public money and “nationalism trumps sound industrial policy.” Some experts suggested that Britain had “bought the wrong satellites.” OneWeb’s lower-Earth-orbit Internet satellites were, they said, inferior to higher-orbit positioning systems such as Galileo, America’s GPS and Russia’s Glonass.

But now, with demand for satellite broadband exploding, Britain may have, perhaps inadvertently, bought itself a prime seat in another innovative but fledgling space industry.

Rejuvenated OneWeb has attracted investments from Japan’s Softbank, US Hughes Network Systems and India’s Bharti Enterprises. Bharti is the largest shareholder, with 38.6%, while the United Kingdom has sold from 45% to 19.3%, on a par with Softbank and France’s Eutelsat, which is planning a new injection of 120 million pounds sterling this month.

OneWeb and Starlink are the only broadband operators that have placed satellites in space, and OneWeb is ready to provide a layer of fast Internet access, particularly in remote areas. The problem, analysts say, is that Johnson, who just a few weeks ago unveiled the UK’s ambitious new space strategy, quickly dubbed Galactic Britain, has yet to see its potential.


“When the UK withdrew from Galileo, we lost access to certain types of services that were essential to our national infrastructure,” said Marek Ziebart, professor of space geodesy at University College London. “The government tried to spin OneWeb as a cheap and fast way to deliver SOP [positioning, navigation and timing] services, and that was just a very bad idea. They have not given up on this idea yet. “

The flip side, he says, is that with 322 OneWeb satellites already in orbit and their constellation almost halfway through, the UK is well positioned to capitalize on a lucrative and geopolitically advantageous broadband market.

“Once you’ve started taking up a piece of space by launching satellites, it’s like land grabbing in the Wild West – other people will also find it much more difficult to operate there,” Ziebart said. “You can see a lot of people lining up to try to launch that kind of technology. [and] it would put the UK in a position of technology leadership if all works out. The UK government is interested in having access to that kind of communications infrastructure. From a space policy perspective, getting a slice of the low-Earth orbit communications satellite paradigm is really sensible, because that’s the new paradigm. “

Washington state-based Starlink, with the resources of Musk and the entire SpaceX fleet at its disposal, has been ahead of its rivals, including Amazon’s Kuiper project. It has launched nearly 1,800 satellites, has approval for another 10,000 and has submitted an application for a constellation of 42,000, all while everyone except OneWeb is still on the ground.

Potential customers for satellite broadband could be those who circumvent censorship in regimes like North Korea and Afghanistan.

Starlink is also the only operator to have developed a functional terrestrial terminal to process signals from space on an internet service of up to 300Mbps, which Musk says is scheduled to finish its one-year beta testing stage this month. It hopes to offer a mobile version of its fixed-location receiver, dubbed Dishy McFlatface, by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the Kuiper project, with a $ 10 billion investment from Jeff Bezos, has federal approval for 3,236 satellites, and in April it signed a contract with the United Launch Alliance for its first nine deployment flights, on dates yet to be determined. . Other projects include a constellation of 13,000 people from China; a microsatellite company of the private company Astranis targeting Alaska; and Telesat, a Canadian company that won a government grant of C $ 1.44 billion (£ 841 million) for its planned 298 satellite network.

The EU is investigating the launch of a constellation to provide satellite broadband by 2024. “We cannot have the first service in 2040. If we do that, we are dead,” Jean-Marc Nasr, director of Airbus Space Systems, who leads a feasibility study, the European Space Conference said in January. However, last month the Sunday Telegraph reported that Brussels was considering its own investment in OneWeb, raising the possibility of the EU joining the existing UK-India consortium to take on Starlink.

However, it is unlikely that even OneWeb, with a guaranteed investment of close to $ 5 billion, could match Starlink, and eventually Kuiper, in scope, wealth or size of the customer base.

Nor is he trying. OneWeb CEO Neil Masterson told CNBC that he believed demand for satellite broadband could support multiple providers. “There are some areas where we will compete, but governments will always buy more than one service,” he said. “Multiple players will be able to be successful in tackling their market.”

Satellite broadband has also drawn criticism. Astronomers and environmentalists are angry at light pollution from low-orbiting satellites, and space debris trackers point to a vastly higher collision risk. Ziebart students modeled a 10-year scenario that shows an alarming increase in the number of satellites in orbit.

Professor John Crassidis of the University at Buffalo, who advises NASA on space debris, said: “We already monitored about 23,000 objects the size of softballs and larger. Adding to that many more satellites will be a problem in terms of collision avoidance. “

But the market seems limitless. One possible group of clients, highlighted by the business website Quartz, could be those who wish to circumvent censorship in regimes such as North Korea and Afghanistan. More traditional customers would include emergency services, the military, agriculture, and the cruise industry – anyone looking for fast Internet access where cable connections are not available.

Cummings, the architect of the government’s investment in OneWeb, left government long ago, but with the British space industry worth £ 16bn a year and 45,000 jobs, Johnson has no reason to withdraw from OneWeb.

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