UK takes on Elon Musk in the broadband space race

Although they are not visible to the naked eye, they can be seen through an astronomers telescope. The constellation of small satellites orbiting Earth is growing every month above our heads. They are often no larger than a refrigerator and they are part of a new race to get broadband internet to remote areas.
Starlink, which is backed by Elon Musk, the US tech entrepreneur, and OneWeb (part-owned by the British taxpayer) are the frontrunners. These two plans to create a network of 650 satellites are the centerpiece of the UK's space strategy. It was unveiled in September.

OneWeb was insolvent in 2020. The government was persuaded by OneWeb to save it. Boris Johnson viewed it as a gift from God. After the UK was rebuffed by the European Union's Galileo satellite project, Dominic Cummings, technology expert and chief advisor, proclaimed the network as a way back to space.

OneWeb was initially focused on satellite positioning to provide precise information for everything from smartphones maps to tracking emergency services.

Cummings saw Johnson's 400m taxpayer money spent on a 20% stake as an example of high-risk, high reward investment that the government needed to keep itself from being left behind in the technological slow lane. Others called it an absurd gamble with public money and nationalism over solid industrial policy. Experts suggested that Britain bought the wrong satellites. OneWeb's satellites in lower orbit on Earth were, according to experts, inferior to higher-orbiting positioning system such as Galileo and Americas GPS.

With satellite broadband demand exploding, Britain might inadvertently own a seat in a fledgling, innovative space industry.

Rejuvenated OneWeb attracted investment from Japan's Softbank, USA's Hughes Network Systems, and India's Bharti Enterprises. Bharti holds 38.6% of the equity, while the UK sold down to 19.3% from 45%. This is comparable to Softbank and Frances Eutelsat which are planning another 120m injection.

OneWeb and Starlink have been the only broadband companies to actually launch satellites into space. OneWeb will provide fast internet access to remote areas, while Starlink and OneWeb are the only ones that have. Analysts say Johnson, who unveiled the UK's ambitious new space strategy just weeks ago, has not yet seen its full potential.

OneWeb satellites are carried aboard a spacecraft. Photograph by Reuters

We lost access to essential services when the UK pulled out of Galileo. This was according to Marek Ziebart from University College London, professor of space geodesy. OneWeb was spun by the government as a quick and cheap way to deliver PNT [positioning and navigation and timing] services. This was a terrible idea. They aren't giving up on this idea yet.

He says that the flip side is that the UK has 322 OneWeb satellites in orbit and almost half of its constellation complete. This means that it is well placed to profit from a lucrative and geopolitically beneficial broadband market.

Ziebart stated that once you have occupied a space area by launching satellites it's a bit like the wild west land grab. Other people will find it harder to operate there. It is easy to see people lined up to launch this kind of technology. If it works, it will put the UK in an technologically superior position. It is in the UK's best interest to have this kind of communication infrastructure. Space policy is a sensible way to get a piece of the low-Earth orbit communications satellite paradigm. It is the new paradigm.

Starlink, a Washington State-based company, has beaten rivals like Amazon's Kuiper project and Musk's resources. It has launched nearly 1,800 satellites and received approval for 10,000 more. Starlink has also submitted an application to build a constellation of 42,000 while OneWeb remains on the ground.

Potential clients for satellite broadband include those who are able to evade censorship in countries such as North Korea or Afghanistan.

Starlink is the only operator that has developed a functional ground terminal capable of processing signals from space into an internet service up to 300Mbps. Musk claims Starlink will be finished its year-long beta test stage in March. Dishy McFlatface is the mobile version of Starlink's fixed-location receiver.

With a $10bn investment by Jeff Bezos in Kuiper, the project has federal approval for 3,236 satellites. In April, United Launch Alliance signed a contract for the first nine deployment flights. Dates have yet to be set. The Kuiper project also includes a Chinese constellation of 13,000 people; an Astranis micro-satellite venture that targets Alaska; and Telesat Canada, which received a CA$1.44bn (841m), government grant to fund its 298-satellite network.

The EU is looking into launching a satellite constellation that will provide broadband internet via satellite by 2024. The first service cannot be launched before 2040. Jean-Marc Nasr from Airbus Space Systems, which is currently leading a feasibility study, said that if we do so, we will be dead. This was Jean-Marc Nasr who spoke at the European Space Conference in January. The Sunday Telegraph reported last month that Brussels was considering investing in OneWeb. This raises the possibility of the EU joining an existing UK-Indian consortium to tackle Starlink.

Even OneWeb, which has secured investments of close to $5bn is unlikely to be as successful as Starlink and Kuiper in terms of scope, wealth, or size client base.

It is not trying to. Neil Masterson, chief executive of OneWeb, stated to CNBC that he believes the demand for satellite broadband can support multiple vendors. He said that there are areas in which we will compete but that governments will always purchase more than one service. Multiple players will be able compete in their respective markets.

Satellite broadband has also been criticized. Both environmentalists and astronomers are upset at the light pollution caused by satellites in low orbit. Trackers of space debris also point to significantly increased collision risks. Ziebarts students created a scenario that shows a dramatic increase in orbiting satellites over the past 10 years.

Professor John Crassidis, University at Buffalo's expert on space junk, stated that we already monitor around 23,000 objects of softball-sized size or larger. Adding satellites to the mix will make it difficult to avoid collisions.

The market is vast, however. Quartz business website suggests that there could be a client group who wants to bypass censorship in countries like North Korea or Afghanistan. The military, emergency services, and agriculture are all potential customers. Anyone who needs fast internet access in areas where wired connections are not available would be a better choice.

Cummings, the architect of the government's investment in OneWeb is now gone. However, Johnson doesn't have any reason to leave OneWeb with Britains space industry worth 16bn per year and 45,000 jobs.