France and the UK work on LEO satellite broadband to compete with Starlink and Project Kuiper

Eutelsat and OneWeb, French and British government-backed businesses have received the final green light from French President Emmanuel Macron, and are ready to deploy a new kind of low-earth orbit or “LEO” broadband satellite that could help connect the 2.9 billion people on the planet who still do not have good internet access.

Eutelsat and OneWeb, French and British government-backed businesses have received the final green light from French President Emmanuel Macron to combine. The $3.4 billion agreement will create a European satellite operator to take on Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos’s satellite internet ventures, blanketing the earth in new kinds of low-earth orbit (LEO) broadband satellites. Macron and the EU have earmarked billions of euros for investment into space and satellite programs, and Eutelsat hopes to be part of the European Commission’s planned LEO project.

LEO broadband could connect the unconnected

Traditional broadband requires an extensive track of underground or underwater cables, routed between major data centers in order to provide reliable internet service. In the world’s more remote and sparsely populated areas, this can be cost-prohibitive. In these locations, satellite-based internet, particularly that provided by LEO satellites could be the only economical option for high speed internet.

LEO technology works through constellations of small satellites that are relatively close to the Earth – in a low orbit – and provide faster connections than previous satellite internet that used high-altitude geostationary satellites. LEO satellites have been called the technology that will revolutionize the internet. With more than one third of the world still lacking an internet connection, these satellite constellations can help bring the digital age to remote and rural communities that are being left behind.

Most notable in the LEO satellite field is Elon Musk and Space X’s Starlink service, which has deployed 2,000 satellites already and applied for licenses to fly more than 40,000. Their service is currently available in only a few countries on a first-come, first-served basis for $99 a month, plus $499 for home equipment. Amazon has also announced plans to launch a similar initiative called Project Kuiper, made up of more than 3,000 satellites.

OneWeb itself already has 350 satellites in orbit and plans to double the number in its constellation. With high-speed internet being a modern necessity, LEO satellite internet can help connect the 2.9 billion people on the planet who still do not have good internet access.

Governments look to take advantage of LEO connectivity

While technology has the chance to bring benefits to many people, the field is quickly becoming a geopolitical arena. Operators must promise governments network access, and surveillance and intelligence mission capabilities in order to get approval or support for the constellations. Eutelsat Chief Executive Officer Eva Berneke said in an interview that, “Governmental and military uses are really key…we have some very big American competitors…will probably have some very big Chinese competitors, and we’ll probably also have some Russians.”

Russia has already become a problem for the combined companies, as the Kremlin is currently holding 36 OneWeb satellites hostage in Kazakhstan where a launch was planned. Currently the UK is refusing to accede to demands that the country pledges not to use the satellite company for military purposes. 

With the new merger, Eutelsat will have to balance its efforts to recover OneWeb’s satellites against its business of selling broadcasting services into Russia, which accounts for about 6% of revenues. This broadcasting service has also led to problems and calls for intervention, as Eutelsat is carrying TV channels such as Rossiya 1, Perviy 1 and NTV into Russia, known for being important components of the Russian propaganda effort.

Post-brexit cooperation challenges

To further complicate things for Eutelsat and OneWeb, Britain is no longer part of the European Union, which could place it at odds with the EU commission’s vision for a sovereign constellation free of any control from a third country. Christophe Grudler, the parliamentarian in charge of the EU’s constellation project, said that using OneWeb-Eutelsat seems “impossible…The European Union needs to be in complete control of its satellites, without risking being hampered by an outside actor.”

All of this makes it a tricky situation for investors too. China Investment Corp., a Beijing sovereign wealth fund, is one of Eutelsat’s biggest shareholders. British leaders however consider China a top threat in the technology arena. While Eutelsat has played down concerns about these conflicts, it is clear that the Eutelsat-OneWeb LEO satellite proposition is much more complicated than Amazon or SpaceX’s offerings, which are currently purely private ventures.


There are no comments

Add yours