Britain vs. Elon Musk in the broadband space race

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They are invisible to the naked eye, but they can leave a light on the astronomer’s telescope. Above us, the constellation of small satellites orbiting the earth is expanding every month. They are usually not bigger than refrigerators, but they are part of the new space race as competitors race to transmit broadband Internet to the most difficult-to-reach places on the planet.

The front runners are Starlink, backed by American tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, and OneWeb, which is partly owned by British taxpayers. The latter plans to build a network of 650 satellites, which is the core of the British space strategy announced in September.

In 2020, OneWeb faces insolvency and the government is persuaded to bail out. For Boris Johnson, this is a gift from heaven. Dominic Cummings (Dominic Cummings), a technical expert and chief adviser, touted the network as a way to return to space in the Galileo satellite project that Britain withdrew from the European Union due to Brexit.

OneWeb focused on using satellites to provide accurate location information for everything from smartphone maps to emergency service tracking.

Cummings will Johnson spend 400 million pounds to buy 20% of the shares, which is regarded by Cummings as a perfect example of the high-risk, high-return investment that the government needs to avoid falling into the slow lane of technology. Others described it as a ridiculous gamble on public funds and “nationalism over a solid industrial policy.” Some experts believe that the UK “bought the wrong satellite”. They said that OneWeb’s low-earth orbit Internet satellites are not as good as high-orbit positioning systems such as Galileo, the US’s GPS and Russia’s Glonass.

But now, with the surge in demand for satellite broadband, the UK may — perhaps unintentionally — have won itself a major seat in another innovative but fledgling aerospace industry.

The revitalized OneWeb attracted investment from Japan’s SoftBank, the US Hughes Network Systems, and India’s Bharti Enterprises. Bharti is the largest shareholder, holding 38.6%, while the UK has sold from 45% to 19.3%, on par with SoftBank and France’s Eutelsat, which plans to inject a further £120 million this month.

OneWeb and Starlink are the only broadband operators that actually send satellites into space, and OneWeb is ready to provide fast Internet access, especially in remote areas. Analysts say the problem is that Johnson announced a few weeks ago that Britain’s ambitious new space strategy — known as Galactic Britain — has yet to see its potential.


Marek Ziebart, Professor of Space Geodesy at University College London, said: “When the UK withdrew from Galileo, we lost certain types of services that were essential to our country’s infrastructure.” “The government tried to use OneWeb as a cheap and fast PNT. payment method [positioning, navigation and timing] Service, this is just a very bad idea. They have not given up on this idea. “

He said that, on the other hand, since 322 OneWeb satellites have entered orbit and its constellation is almost half completed, the UK is in a good position to profit in the lucrative and geopolitical broadband market.

“Once you start occupying a portion of space by launching satellites, it’s like a wild west land grab: others will also find it more difficult to operate there,” Zibat said. “You can see a lot of people line up trying to launch this technology [and] If all goes well, it will put the UK in a leading position in technology. It is in the interest of the British government to obtain this communication infrastructure. From the perspective of space policy, it is wise to take a share of the low-Earth orbit communication satellite paradigm, because it is a new paradigm. “

Starlink, headquartered in Washington State, has Musk and the entire SpaceX fleet at its disposal, and has already taken away competitors, including Amazon’s Kuiper project. It has launched nearly 1,800 satellites, received approvals for another 10,000, and submitted applications for 42,000 constellations-at the same time, everyone except OneWeb is still on the ground.

Possible customers of satellite broadband may be those who evade censorship by regimes such as North Korea and Afghanistan

Starlink is also the only operator that has developed a functional ground terminal that can process signals from space into an Internet service of up to 300Mbps. Musk said that the service will complete a one-year Beta test phase this month as planned. It is expected to launch a mobile version of its fixed-position receiver before the end of this year, nicknamed Dishy McFlatface.

At the same time, the Kuiper project, with a $10 billion investment by Jeff Bezos, won the federal government’s approval for 3,236 satellites, and signed a contract with the Joint Launch Alliance for the first nine deployment flights in April. The date has not yet been determined. . Other projects include a 13,000 strong constellation from China; a microsatellite enterprise from a private company Astralis, targeting Alaska; and Telesat, a Canadian company that has won the government of 1.44 billion Canadian dollars (841 million pounds) for its planned 298 satellite network Appropriation.

The European Union is studying the launch of a constellation that will provide broadband satellites by 2024. “We will not be able to provide the first service in 2040. If we do, we will be dead,” said Jean-Marc Nasr, head of Airbus Aerospace Systems, who is leading a feasibility study Research, said at the European Space Conference in January. However, last month, the “Sunday Telegraph” reported that Brussels is considering its own investment in OneWeb, which raises the possibility of the EU joining the existing Anglo-Indian consortium to take over Starlink.

However, even OneWeb, whose security investment has approached $5 billion, is unlikely to rival Starlink and ultimately Kuiper in terms of the scope, wealth, or scale of its customer base.

It is also not an attempt. OneWeb CEO Neil Masterson told CNBC that he believes the demand for satellite broadband can support multiple vendors. “We will compete in certain areas, but the government will always buy more than one service,” he said. “Multiple participants will be able to successfully respond to their market.”

Satellite broadband has also attracted criticism. Astronomers and environmentalists are angry about light pollution from low-orbit satellites, and space debris trackers point out that the risk of collisions is greatly increased. Ziebart’s students simulated a 10-year scenario that showed an amazing surge in the number of orbiting satellites.

Professor John Krasidis of the University of Buffalo advises NASA on space junk. He said: “We have monitored about 23,000 objects the size of softballs and larger. In terms of avoiding collisions, add more Satellites will become a problem.”

But the market seems to be unlimited. One possible customer group highlighted by the commercial website Quartz may be those who wish to circumvent the censorship of regimes such as North Korea and Afghanistan. More traditional customers will include emergency services, the military, agriculture, and the cruise industry—anyone looking for fast Internet access when a wired connection is unavailable.

Cummings, the designer of government investment in OneWeb, has long since left the government, but the British aerospace industry is worth 16 billion pounds a year and provides 45,000 jobs. Johnson has no reason to quit OneWeb.

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