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EU set to sign internet satellite deal, as UK frees up spectrum

Hasn't escaped Europe's notice that US, China, Russia are launching sat after sat

The EU is said to be nearing a deal on building a satellite internet service to fill in gaps in terrestrial broadband coverage, as well as providing "strategic independence" for the region.

The move comes as the UK telco regulator Ofcom announces more radio spectrum available for satellite broadband services as part of an overhauled strategy for the sector.

Back in February, the European Commission (EC) announced an initiative to build a space-based connectivity system to ensure uninterrupted access to satellite communication services and allow for commercial services by the private sector to meet the needs of citizens and businesses across Europe.

Now, according to reports, the European Parliament and EU countries are preparing to sign a €6 billion ($5.97 billion) deal giving the scheme the go ahead in a meeting scheduled for November 17. However, it is understood that there is currently disagreement over where the funding for the project will come from, meaning the deal may not be finalized at this meeting.

That €6 billion figure is only an estimate for the total cost, with the EU planning to contribute €2.4 billion ($2.39 billion) between 2022 and 2027, and the remainder expected to be covered by private sector investments.

In its original announcement, the EC said that economic prosperity and security is increasingly dependent on secure and resilient connectivity, and noted the emergence of various satellite constellations operated by the US, China and Russia.

It proposed the EU should have its own satellite communications network "to ensure guaranteed access in an unrestricted manner, by avoiding dependencies on third-counties [sic] and reinforcing the resilience of our value chains."

This should also allow for commercial high-speed broadband availability throughout Europe, removing dead zones and providing connectivity over geographical areas of strategic interest, such as Africa and the Arctic region.

The companies who may be involved haven't been named, but major players in the area include OneWeb and Eutelsat, which in July signed a memorandum of understanding intended to create a mega multi-orbit satellite broadband provider.

Unlike rival Starlink, which has thousands of satellites in Low Earth Orbit, the combined company would theoretically operate satellites both in Geostationary Orbit via the Eutelsat's 36-strong fleet and LEO – via OneWeb's 428 satellite constellation.

More Starlink gateways to come online in UK

Meanwhile, UK telecoms regulatory body Ofcom has announced availability of more radio spectrum for satellite services, and granted licenses to Starlink and Telesat in support of their satellite operations.

Specifically, Ofcom said that to meet growing demand for satellite services, it is extending access to include frequencies in the Ku band (14.25-14.5 GHz) for satellite connectivity. Anyone wishing to make use of the 14.25-14.5 GHz band for this purpose can now request a variation to their existing license(s) or apply for a new license, it stated.

Ofcom is also granting licenses to Starlink and Telesat for spectrum for non-geostationary Earth Station gateways, basically the vital connection between the satellite network and the terrestrial internet.

SpaceX, the Starlink operator, already operates three gateways in the UK, and it now has the licenses for another six operating in Ka band frequencies, granted "to help to meet user demand and provide weather diversity and network resiliency," according to Ofcom.

Telesat has also been granted a non-geostationary satellite earth station network license, but in this case the license authorizes small user satellite dishes to connect to its satellite service. This allows the company to offer satellite connectivity to individuals and businesses in the UK for the first time.

In a canned statement Ofcom Spectrum Group director David Willis commented: "Satellite technology offers faster and more reliable internet services for those living in remote areas, as well as planes and ships. Today is one small step in our work to make sure everyone can benefit from these giant leaps in innovation."

These moves are part of a refreshed strategy from Ofcom for managing radio spectrum used by the space sector.

The regulator said its aim is to make sufficient spectrum available to deliver the benefits of satellite systems, while ensuring spectrum is used efficiently. This task will require finding the right balance between enabling new and innovative services while ensuring existing valuable services can continue, it said in a statement. ®

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