TThey are invisible to the naked eye, but can leave a trail of light through an astronomer’s telescope. Above our heads, the constellation of small satellites orbiting the Earth is getting bigger every month. Often no bigger than a refrigerator, they are part of a new space race as their rivals battle it out to bring high-speed internet to the hardest to reach places on Earth.
The pioneers are Starlink, backed by US tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, and OneWeb, which is partly owned by the UK 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 save it. For Boris Johnson, it was a gift from heaven. The UK had been rejected by the Brexit of the European Union’s Galileo satellite project, and there was Dominic Cummings, technology expert and chief adviser, touting the network as a way back into space.
Back then, OneWeb was focused on using satellites to provide precise positioning information for everything from smartphone maps to emergency service tracking.
Johnson’s follies of £ 400million taxpayer 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 technological way. Others have called it a senseless gamble of public money and “nationalism taking precedence over sound industrial policy”. Some experts have suggested that Britain “bought the wrong satellites”. OneWeb’s lower earth orbit internet satellites were, they said, inferior to upper orbit positioning systems such as Galileo, US GPS and Russian Glonass.
But now, with the explosion in demand for satellite broadband, Britain may – perhaps inadvertently – have bought itself a place of pride in another innovative but nascent space industry.
The rejuvenated version of OneWeb has attracted investment from Softbank in Japan, Hughes Network Systems in the United States, and Bharti Enterprises in India. Bharti is the largest shareholder, with 38.6%, while the UK has ceded from 45% to 19.3%, tied with Softbank and France’s Eutelsat, which plans an additional injection of £ 120million this month -this.
OneWeb and Starlink are the only broadband operators to have actually placed satellites in space, and OneWeb is poised to provide fast internet access coverage, especially in remote areas. The problem, analysts say, is that Johnson, who unveiled the UK’s ambitious new space strategy – quickly dubbed galactic Britain – just weeks ago – has yet to see its potential.
“When the UK pulled out of Galileo, we lost access to certain types of services essential for our national infrastructure,” said Marek Ziebart, professor of spatial geodesy at University College London. “The government tried to make OneWeb an inexpensive and fast way to deliver PNT [positioning, navigation and timing] services, and that was just a really bad idea. They haven’t given up on this idea yet.
The flip side, he says, is that with 322 OneWeb satellites already in orbit and its constellation almost half-finished, the UK is well positioned to take advantage of a lucrative and geopolitically advantageous broadband market.
“Once you start taking up some space by launching satellites, it’s a bit like the land grabbing of the Wild West – other people are going to have a lot more trouble operating there as well – low, ”Ziebart said. “You can see a lot of people lining up to try and launch this kind of technology. [and] it would put the UK in a technological leadership position if everything worked out. It is in the interests of the UK government to have access to this type of communications infrastructure. From a space policy perspective, getting a slice of the low earth orbit communications satellite paradigm really makes sense, because it’s the new paradigm. “
Washington-based Starlink, with Musk’s resources and the entire SpaceX fleet at its disposal, stole a march on rivals, including Amazon’s Project Kuiper. It has launched nearly 1,800 satellites, approved 10,000 more, and submitted a request for a constellation of 42,000 – all while everyone but OneWeb is still on the ground.
Starlink is also the only operator to have developed a functional ground terminal to process signals from space into an internet service of up to 300 Mbps, which Musk says is expected to complete its one-year beta testing phase this month. this. It plans to offer a mobile version of its fixed receiver, dubbed Dishy McFlatface, by the end of the year.
Project Kuiper, with a $ 10 billion investment from Jeff Bezos, has obtained federal approval for 3,236 satellites and in April signed a contract with the United Launch Alliance for its first nine deployment flights, on dates as yet determine. Other projects include a constellation of 13,000 people from China; a micro-satellite company of the private company Atranis which targets Alaska; and Telesat, a Canadian company that won a C $ 1.44 billion (£ 841 million) government grant for its 298 satellite network project.
The EU is studying the launch of a constellation to provide satellite broadband by 2024. “We cannot have the first service in 2040. If we do, we are dead”, Jean-Marc Nasr, director Airbus Space Systems, which is leading a feasibility study, told the European Space Conference in January. Last month, however, the Sunday Telegraph reported that Brussels was considering its own investment in OneWeb, raising the prospect of the EU joining the existing UK-India consortium to take on Starlink.
Yet even OneWeb, with a secure investment already close to $ 5 billion, is unlikely to be able to match Starlink, and possibly Kuiper, in terms of reach, wealth, or customer size.
He doesn’t try either. OneWeb chief executive Neil Masterson told CNBC he believes demand for satellite broadband could support multiple providers. “There are some areas where we will be competing, but governments will always buy more than one service,” he said. “Several players will be able to successfully address their market. “
Satellite broadband has also drawn criticism. Astronomers and environmentalists are angry with light pollution from low-orbiting satellites, and space debris trackers point to dramatically increased collision risks. Ziebart students modeled a 10-year scenario showing an alarming spike in the number of orbiting satellites.
Professor John Crassidis of the University of Buffalo, who advises NASA on space debris, said: “We are already monitoring some 23,000 objects the size of a softball and larger. Adding to that a lot more satellites is going to be a problem in terms of collision avoidance. “
But the market seems limitless. One possible client group, highlighted by the Quartz business website, could be those who wish to bypass censorship in regimes such as North Korea and Afghanistan. More traditional clients would include the emergency services, military, agriculture, and cruise industry – anyone looking for fast internet access where wired connections aren’t available.
Cummings, architect of the government’s investment in OneWeb, is long gone from government, but with Britain’s space industry worth £ 16 billion a year and 45,000 jobs, Johnson has no reason to opt out of OneWeb.