Monday, July 13, 2020
A consortium led by the UK government and Indian conglomerate Bharti Enterprises has won the hugely competitive auction for satellite manufacturer and low Earth orbit (LEO) network operator OneWeb.
The consortium will use the assets of OneWeb — which has headquarters in both West London and Virginia in the US — to complete the deployment of a network to offer broadband services to predominantly rural areas, and to develop with partners a novel satellite navigation system that will compete with existing services such as the US GPS network and Europe’s fledgling Galileo system.
On the broadband side, OneWeb will be competing directly with Elon Musk’s StarLink venture.
The UK was forced to leave the pan-European Galileo project following its Brexit vote. Despite arguably having led the development of some of the most crucial elements of the system (including the encrypted sat-nav service reserved for use by the emergency and public services as well as many of the chips for both on-board use and for the receivers), the country will have no access to the Galileo system when it enters service later this year.
The deal for the consortium has still to be ratified by the US Bankruptcy Court in New York. jOneWeb went into Chapter 11 administration in March when major backers, such as Softbank, declined to back a $2 billion refinancing. Qualcomm, an original investor in the company, had previously sold its stake.
The UK government has committed to back the next phase of OneWeb’s development with $500 million for a 20% stake. Bharti will be the major shareholder.
Once given the green light, the company will begin work on building out its network of LEO satellites. To date it has launched just 74 out of the planned 640 for a complete network. Its main competitor, StarLink, has launched more than 500 of its satellites, with another 100 under construction.
The UK government’s involvement is being trumpeted as one of its “high risk / high payoff” technology projects, and will lead to the abandonment of its hugely ambitious and costly plans to develop its own Medium Earth Orbit sat-nav systems. Importantly, all the other sat-nav networks — GPS, Galileo, China’s BeiDou and the Russian Glonass system — operate from MEO-based satellites.
Not everyone in the industry is fully on board with the UK’s plan “to complete construction of a global satellite constellation that will provide enhanced broadband and other services to countries around the world.”
“Other” refers to a completely new and untried sat-nav system, referred to as a space based Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) service.
For instance, in a recent article in The Guardian newspaper, Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy expert at the University of Leicester, warned the UK was looking to buy the “wrong satellites”.
Bowen suggests that what has happened is that “some very talented lobbyists at OneWeb have convinced the government that we can completely redesign some of the satellites to piggy-back a navigation payload on it. This is like bolting an unproven technology on to a mega-constellation that is designed to do so something else. It’s a technology and business gamble.”
However, according to Stuart Martin, CEO of the UK’s Satellite Applications Catapult, an innovation hub, this is exactly the kind of opportunity the UK should be looking at.
Martin told EETimes: “We now have the chance to provide a next-generation global satellite navigation system in an incremental way — not like Galileo. Here is the opportunity to bring together the characteristics of a proven high-performance communications system such as OneWeb with a completely new GNSS option that can be both resilient and totally accurate.”
Martin notes that the Catapult’s analysis suggests that, even without too much modification, the existing OneWeb satellites should provide a highly accurate timing service. Then, by upgrading the satellites and providing an appropriate navigation ground component, it would be possible to significantly augment or even replace existing navigation systems.
An important fact, according to studies at the Catapult, is that OneWeb signals are of much higher power than those of conventional navigation services. This, combined with characteristics of new antennas, means that a OneWeb navigation receiver would be a thousand times more resilient to jamming and interference than a conventional navigation receiver.
In this scenario, OneWeb would be offering something new into the PNT arena, and not simply be just another alternative system.
It is believed such arguments led the government to pursue a major stake in OneWeb.
Martin cautions there are big challenges and uncertainties ahead, not least meeting the requirements of the military. “And perhaps the biggest risk is that we will spend too long delaying decisions.”
A completely different type of decision that will need to be solved by the consortium is where, in the future, the satellites will be assembled. Currently they are made in Florida in a joint venture between OneWeb and the European Airbus group.
Another reason for pursuing the deal was that at least some of the production could be transferred to the UK to back up the country’s long tradition and competence in the satellite development and manufacturing sector.
Unfortunately, days ahead of the auction President Trump suggested that could be blocked due to national security concerns.
Commenting on the outcome of the auction, Richard Franklin, managing director of Airbus in the UK, said: ”The UK government’s vision in backing this project will drive innovation and new ways of thinking about how space can contribute even more to the UK economy, and the country’s defence requirements, as well as playing a part in delivering broadband internet to communities across the country.”
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