UK prime minister Boris Johnson reluctant to reveal his involvement in the OneWeb deal
'I don’t think I should comment on exactly who did what'
UK Prime Minister Boris has backed the country’s commitment to the nation’s Brexit Satellite constellation plan, although he is apparently unwilling to put his name to the deal which helped take satellite communications company OneWeb out of bankruptcy.
Speaking to the House of Commons Liaison Committee yesterday, the Tory leader responded to a question from Labour MP Darren Jones, asking whether Johnson had been involved personally in the controversial move and that the chancellor personally had to sign the cheque, as reports suggested.
Embodying his carefully crafted blonde-mopped buffoon persona, Johnson declined the opportunity to take responsibility for it.
“Certainly, the government was involved at all levels in doing the deal. I don’t think I should comment on exactly who did what,” Johnson said.
Nonetheless, the government’s commitment to the UK leading on something to do with satellites was unwavering.
“The ambition of, for the UK to have a presence in space and in the low Earth orbit market is a notable one and an important one. For too long, the UK has been left behind in the space race: this is an area of colossal commercial importance, so we need to be there,” Johnson said.
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He continued to be vague about which department’s budget line the £500m investment in OneWeb came from when pressed by Jones, the chair of the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. “The commitment is one that the whole of government has made, but if you're asking which department is responsible for space strategy, then the responsibility lies with the Secretary of State BEIS,” the Prime Minister said.
Given the background to the decisions to buy OneWeb, the satellite communication company founded by Greg Wyler in 2012, it might be understandable that Johnson is hesitant to put his name to it.
For starters, OneWeb's satellites are designed for internet connectivity, rather than the sat-nav function the UK government might need them to perform to make up its departure from the Galileo programme which it left on exiting the EU.
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The satellites are not designed to provide the centimetre levels of positioning accuracy on offer by the sat-nav competition. It might be feasible, if technically challenging, to operate a navigation system in the Low Earth Orbit of OneWeb rather than Medium Earth Orbit of something like Galileo. It would require fiddling with the payloads of the existing spacecraft and dealing with the ground infrastructure.
Alternatives to repurposing OneWeb include the UK putting up £5bn or more to start from scratch building its own system, or swallowing its pride to get user access to the PRS service of Galileo, probably by far the cheaper option.
OneWeb had filed for bankruptcy in the US in March 2020. In July, the government said it would provide $500m to deliver the first UK sovereign space capability, alongside $500m from Bharti Global. The company emerged from bankruptcy in November following the completion of the deal.
The UK government has been cagey about the exact purpose of the OneWeb deal in relation to its departure from the Galileo programme. It only alluded to “other services” and “a wide range of other applications” as well as satellite comms when the deal was announced. ®