TThey are invisible to the naked eye, but can leave a streak of light through an astronomical telescope. Above our heads, the constellation of tiny satellites orbiting the Earth is expanding every month. Often no bigger than a refrigerator, they are part of a new space race as competitors race to send broadband internet to the hardest-to-reach places on Earth.
The top candidates are Starlink, backed by American tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, and OneWeb, owned in part by British taxpayers. The latter’s plan to build a network of 650 satellites is a cornerstone of the UK’s space strategy, which was unveiled in September.
In 2020, OneWeb was facing bankruptcy and the government was persuaded to bail it out. For Boris Johnson, it was a gift from heaven. The UK has bounced back from Brexit before the EU’s Galileo satellite project, and there’s been Dominic Cummings, Faun Tech and Senior Adviser, touting the network as a path back into space.
OneWeb at the time focused on using satellites to provide accurate positioning information for anything from smartphone maps to tracking emergency services.
Cummings considered Johnson’s squandering of £400m of taxpayer money on the 20% stake as an excellent example of the high-risk, high-return investment that the government needs to avoid being left on the tech slow track. Others described it as a meaningless gamble of public money and “nationalism overpowering strong industrial policy”. Some experts suggested that Britain “bought the wrong satellites”. They said that Internet satellites in OneWeb’s lower Earth orbit were inferior to higher-orbit GPS systems such as Galileo, the US GPS and the Russian Glonass system.
But now, with the growing demand for satellite broadband, Britain may – perhaps inadvertently – have bought itself a major seat in another innovative but emerging space industry.
The 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 UK sold a drop from 45% to 19.3%, on a par with France’s Softbank and Eutelsat, which plans to inject an additional 120 million pounds this month.
OneWeb and Starlink are the only broadband operators to have already put satellites into space, and OneWeb is poised to provide fast Internet access coverage, especially in remote areas. The problem, analysts say, is that Johnson, who just weeks ago unveiled the UK’s ambitious new space strategy – promptly dubbed Galactic Britain – has yet to see its potential.
“When the UK pulled out of the Galileo system, we lost access to certain types of services that were essential to our national infrastructure,” said Marek Siebart, professor of space geodesy at University College London. “The government tried to weave OneWeb as a cheap and fast way to deliver PNT [positioning, navigation and timing] Services, this was just a very bad idea. They haven’t given up on that idea yet.”
The flip side, he says, is that with 322 OneWeb satellites already in orbit, and nearly half of its planet completed, the UK is well positioned to tap into the lucrative and geopolitically advantageous broadband market.
“Once you start taking over a piece of space by launching satellites, it’s a bit like taking over the land of the Wild West: Other people will find it more difficult to work there, too,” 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 technical leadership position if all succeeded. It is in the UK government’s interest to have access to this type of telecom infrastructure. From a space policy perspective, having a slice of the LEO communications satellite model is really sensible, because that’s the new model.”
Washington-based Starlink, which has Musk’s resources and the entire SpaceX fleet at its disposal, stole a march on competitors, including Amazon’s Kuiper Project. It has launched nearly 1,800 satellites, secured approval for another 10,000, and placed an order for a constellation of 42,000 – all while everyone but OneWeb is still on Earth.
Starlink is also the only operator to have developed a functional space-to-internet signal processing ground station at speeds of up to 300Mbps, which Musk says is on schedule to finish its year-long beta testing phase this month. It expects to offer a mobile version of the fixed-location receiver, nicknamed Dishy McFlatface, by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Project Kuiper, with a $10 billion investment from Jeff Bezos, received federal approval for 3,236 satellites, and in April signed a contract with United Launch Alliance for the first nine deployment flights, on dates yet to be determined. Other projects include a constellation of 13,000 personnel from China. Small satellite project from 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 network of 298 satellites.
The European Union 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, Head of Space Systems at Airbus, who is leading the feasibility study , at the European Space Conference in January. Last month, however, the Telegraph Sunday It reported that Brussels is considering its own investment in OneWeb, which raises the possibility that the European Union will join the existing British-Indian consortium to take over Starlink.
However, even OneWeb, with a guaranteed investment already approaching $5 billion, is unlikely to be able to match Starlink, and ultimately Kuiper, in terms of scale, wealth or customer base size.
And don’t try it. OneWeb CEO Neil Masterson told CNBC that he believes the demand for satellite broadband can support many vendors. “There are some areas in which we will compete, but governments will always buy more than one service,” he said. “Multiple players will be able to successfully navigate their markets.”
Satellite broadband has also attracted criticism. Astronomers and ecologists are outraged by light pollution from low-orbiting satellites, and trackers of space debris report a dramatically increased collision risk. A . was designed by Ziebart students 10 year scenario It shows an alarming rise in the number of orbiting satellites.
Professor John Krasidis of the University at Buffalo, who advises NASA on space junk, said: “We are already observing about 23,000 objects the size of a softball and larger. To add more satellites would be a problem in terms of collision avoidance.”
But the market seems limitless. One potential customer group, highlighted by business website Quartz, could be those who wish to circumvent censorship in regimes such as North Korea and Afghanistan. Traditional clients may include emergency services, the military, agriculture, and the cruise industry—anyone seeking fast access to the Internet where wired connections are not available.
Cummings, the architect of OneWeb’s government investment, has long since disappeared from government, but with Britain’s £16bn a year space industry and 45,000 jobs, Johnson has no reason to quit OneWeb.