UK government shakes magic money tree, finds $500m to buy a stake in struggling satellite firm OneWeb

Whitehall buddies up with Bharti to complete constellation


The ongoing saga of OneWeb and the UK's ambition to be a major space player took another twist today with the confirmation that $500m will be splurged by Whitehall on the satelite biz.

OneWeb, which filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year, has been the subject of speculation in recent weeks as bidders circled. A consortium led by the UK government, which included another $500m from Indian outift Bharti Global, has won the day and snapped up the UK-based company.

Bharti is a major player in the mobile operator world, and lays claim to 425 million customers. The telco will "provide the company with commercial and operational leadership" while the UK enjoys bragging rights over its "own" (currently incomplete) satellite constellation.

Galileo satellite (c) ESA

One does not simply repurpose an entire internet constellation for sat-nav, but UK might have a go anyway

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The deal will allow OneWeb to finish construction of its fleet, which currently stands at 74 satellites (including six test satellites). Approximately 600 satellites (with some spares) will be needed for global coverage, and the company put in a request with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to increase the satellite count to 48,000 "to meet soaring global connectivity demands".

While the OneWeb satellites are constructed in Florida and the next batch will ride a Russia-built Soyuz to orbit, UK business secretary Alok Sharma heralded the deal as an example of Blighty's ambitions, saying: "Our access to a global fleet of satellites has the potential to connect millions of people worldwide to broadband, many for the first time, and the deal presents the opportunity to further develop our strong advanced manufacturing base right here in the UK."

You want the birds for broadband, right? Right?

Certainly, using the constellation for broadband provision would make sense (particularly for those UK households unable to get decent speeds). It is, after all, what it was designed to do.

However, UK government also noted "other services" alongside the enhanced broadband, which raises once again the spectre of the Galileo satellite navigation project, the UK will be excluded from the "sensitive" secure bits of the project following its departure from the EU.

While at first glance, trying to force a mega-constellation of communication satellites in Low Earth Orbit to perform the positioning duties of a few purpose-built spacecraft in higher orbits may seem risky, it could be made to work.

UK-based Catapult Satellite Applications was unsurprisingly bullish about the concept, noting it reckoned that "even without modification, the existing OneWeb satellites could provide a highly accurate timing service," essential for navigation purposes. It also pointed out that OneWeb signals are considerably more powerful than those of "conventional navigation services".

The idea of using a broadband internet constellation is not new. Boffins at the Stanford University GPS Lab put forward a presentation in 2016 [PDF] detailing how such a system might work and noted benefits deriving from the sheer number of the things.

The problem is that the technology needed to repurpose the satellites is unproven when compared to that used by the likes of GPS and Galileo. To get close to the precision needed for navigational applications (and the encryption demanded by the military), new ground hardware will be needed and it is hard to see how one could avoid fiddling with the payload on future spacecraft.

As such, the $500m being spent could be regarded as a gamble should the UK seek to use OneWeb for navigation purposes, although a smaller one than the billions needed for the UK to create its own Galileo clone.

And for those worried that another Galileo might be in the offing should the consortium turn sour: "The UK government will have a final say over any future sale of the company, and over future access to OneWeb technology by other countries on national security grounds." So there. ®


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