Tue. Aug 9th, 2022

Thi are invisible to the naked eye but can leave a streak of light across an astronomer’s telescope. Above our heads, the constellation of small satellites orbiting the Earth expands every month. Often no bigger than a refrigerator, they are part of a new space race as rivals compete to send broadband internet to the most inaccessible places on Earth.

The forerunners 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 at the heart of Britain’s space strategy unveiled in September.

In 2020, OneWeb faced insolvency and the government was persuaded to save it. To Boris Johnson, it was a gift from heaven. Britain had been jumped by Brexit from the European Union’s Galileo satellite project, and there was Dominic Cummings, technology wonk and chief adviser, who showed the web as a way back into space.

At the time, OneWeb was focused on using satellites to provide accurate location information for everything from smartphone maps to emergency services tracking.

Johnson’s spraying of 400 million. Pounds of taxpayers’ money at a 20% stake were seen by Cummings as a perfect example of the high-risk investment the government needed to avoid being left behind in the technologically slow lane. Others called it a junk investment in public money and “nationalism that trumped solid industrial policy.” Some experts suggested that Britain had “bought the wrong satellites”. OneWeb’s lower satellites in Earth’s orbits were, they said, inferior to higher – orbit positioning systems such as Galileo, America’s GPS, and Russia’s Glonass.

But now that the demand for satellite broadband is exploding, Britain may – perhaps unintentionally – have bought a first-class seat in another innovative but still new space industry.

Rejuvenated OneWeb has attracted investment from Japan’s Softbank, US Hughes Network Systems and India’s Bharti Enterprises. Bharti is the largest shareholder with 38.6%, while the UK has sold down from 45% to 19.3% at the level of Softbank and France’s Eutelsat, which is planning a further injection of £ 120 million this month.

OneWeb and Starlink are the only broadband operators that have actually placed satellites in space, and OneWeb is ready to provide a blanket of high-speed Internet access, especially to remote areas. The problem, analysts say, is that Johnson, who just weeks ago unveiled Britain’s ambitious new space strategy – immediately called Galactic Britain – has yet to see its potential.

A spacecraft carrying OneWeb satellites.
A spacecraft carrying OneWeb satellites. Photo: Reuters

“When the UK withdrew from Galileo, we lost access to certain types of services that were vital to our national infrastructure,” said Marek Ziebart, Professor of Space Geodesy at University College London. “The government tried to turn OneWeb into a cheap and fast way to deliver PNT [positioning, navigation and timing] services and it was just a very bad idea. They have not let go of this idea yet. ”

The reverse, he says, is that with 322 OneWeb satellites already in orbit and its constellation almost half-finished, the UK is well equipped to monetize a lucrative and geopolitically advantageous broadband market.

“Once you start occupying part of the space by launching satellites, it’s more like the land grab in the Wild West: other people will also find it much harder to operate there,” Ziebart said. “You can see lots of people queuing up to try to launch that kind of technology [and] it would put Britain in a technologically leading position if it all works. It is in the interest of the British Government to have access to that kind of communication infrastructure. From a space policy perspective, it really makes sense to get a snippet of the low satellite paradigm of the Earth’s orbit, because that’s the new paradigm. ”

Washington State-based Starlink, with resources from Musk and the entire SpaceX fleet available, has stolen a march against 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 the while all but OneWeb are still on the ground.

Starlink is also the only operator to have developed a functional ground terminal to process signals from space to an Internet service of up to 300 Mbps, which Musk says is scheduled to end its year-long beta test phase this month. It expects to offer a mobile version of its fixed-location receiver, called Dishy McFlatface, before the end of the year.

The Kuiper project, meanwhile, has an investment of $ 10 billion. From Jeff Bezo’s federal approval to 3,236 satellites and in April 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 micro-satellite venture from the private company Astranis, targeting Alaska; and Telesat, a Canadian company that won a government grant of $ 1.44 billion. dollars (841 million pounds) for its planned 298 satellite network.

The EU is investigating the launch of a constellation to provide satellite broadband by 2024. “We can not have the first service by 2040. If we do, we are dead,” said Jean-Marc Nasr, head of Airbus Space Systems, leading a feasibility study. study, the European Space Conference said in January. Last month, however, was Sunday Telegraph reported that Brussels was considering its own investment in OneWeb, raising the prospect of the EU joining the existing British-Indian consortium to host Starlink.

Still, even OneWeb, with safe investments already close to $ 5 billion, is unlikely to be able to match Starlink and ultimately Kuiper in terms of scope, wealth or customer base size.

It’s not trying either. OneWeb CEO Neil Masterson told CNBC that he believed the demand for satellite broadband could support more providers. “There are some areas where we will compete, but governments will always buy more than one service,” he said. “More players will be able to successfully address their market.”

Satellite broadband has also attracted criticism. Astronomers and environmentalists are angry about light pollution from low-orbit satellites, and traces of space debris point to much increased collision risks. Ziebart’s students modeled one 10-year scenario shows an alarming increase in the number of orbiting satellites.

Professor John Crassidis of the University of Buffalo, who advises Nasa on space junk, said: “We are already monitoring about 23,000 softball-sized and larger objects. To add to that, many more satellites will be a problem in terms of avoiding collisions. ”

But the market seems unlimited. One potential customer group, highlighted by the business website Quartz, could be those who want 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 – all seeking fast internet access where cable connections are not available.

Cummings, the architect of the government’s investment in OneWeb, is long gone from the government, but with Britain’s space industry worth £ 16 billion a year and 45,000 jobs, Johnson has no reason to retire from OneWeb.

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