The UK is spending $ 500 million (£ 400 million) on a stake in the failed satellite company OneWeb as part of a plan to replace the loss of the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system.
OneWeb went bankrupt in March while trying to build a spacecraft network to provide broadband.
The United Kingdom is part of a consortium with India Bharti Global that has won a bidding war for the company.
Trade secretary Alok Sharma said it would help provide “Britain’s first sovereign space capacity”.
The government hopes that the network will also work to replace the loss of access to the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system.
In a statement, Sharma said: “This deal underscores the extent of Britain’s ambitions on the global stage.
“Our access to a global fleet of satellites has the potential to connect millions of people around the world to broadband, many for the first time, and the deal provides an opportunity to further develop our solid advanced production base of their own. here in the UK. “
The consortium involving the UK government was the highest bidder in an auction for the bankrupt company.
Super fast broadband
The issues will be clarified on July 10, when the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York decides on the sale.
If the option led by Bharti Global passes, the UK government will hold a 45% equity stake in the new deal.
The UK government sees satellites as a way to meet commitments on the introduction of superfast broadband and believes that the OneWeb constellation could also provide a precise positioning, navigation and timing service, also known as a satellite navigator.
The latter became a political imperative for n. 10 since losing membership of the Galileo European satellite navigation system leaving the EU in January.
While exceptionally good news for OneWeb staff, the British government’s decision to get involved in the company raised eyebrows in the wider space sector.
Some of the more established actors have questioned the financial feasibility of the mega constellation broadband projects.
SpaceX is building an even bigger network and Amazon has long talked about implementing its own version.
These are extremely expensive endeavors involving multiple missile launches – and it’s a constant endeavor.
Satellites need to be updated, to replace obsolete and failed units, but also to take advantage of new technological developments.
Such huge investments make OneWeb an important bet for taxpayers, detractors say.
The $ 500 million (£ 400 million), in their view, could be spent more fruitfully if spread over a wider range of less risky British space projects.
The interesting corner, of course, is the idea that the OneWeb network could also double as a satellite navigation service.
Technically it is not impossible, but it is a challenge.
The UK’s Satellite Application Catapult is preparing a white paper to illustrate a potential way of using OneWeb’s initial constellation to provide precise timescales for use in the country’s energy, telecommunications and finance sectors.
But experts warn that a rough road is ahead of the question of the frequencies used to transmit positioning, navigation and timing signals, which will require an international agreement.
OneWeb, which has its headquarters in West London and parallel operations in Virginia, the United States, had initially raised $ 3 billion (£ 2.4 billion) of investment to build its mega-constellation.
Seventy-four satellites in an initial network of 648 had been launched when the company announced bankruptcy protection, blaming the Covid crisis for inability to obtain additional financial support. Most experts believe that at least another $ 3 billion is needed to use the entire constellation.
Assuming that there are no regulatory blocks in the path of the consortium plan, OneWeb should soon be able to start withdrawing laid-off personnel and resume production and launch of its satellites. Spacecraft are currently manufactured in Florida in collaboration with the European aerospace giant Airbus.
There has been talk of this production, or at least part of it, which will be transferred to Great Britain in the future as part of the new agreements.
Adrian Steckel, CEO of OneWeb, said: “We are delighted to have completed the sales process with such a positive result that it will benefit not only existing OneWeb creditors, but also our employees, vendors, business partners and supporters in all over the world who believe in the mission and promise of global connectivity. “
Airbus in the UK welcomed the outcome of the auction.
CEO Richard Franklin said: “The British government’s vision to support this project will drive innovation and new ways of thinking about how space can contribute even more to the UK economy and the country’s defense requirements. as well as playing a role in providing Internet broadband to communities across the country.
“We look forward to supporting OneWeb in the next phase of their business and increasing the UK’s contribution to this ever-changing business.”
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