The European Union (EU) says that Eutelsat’s recent acquisition of a minority stake in UK-based OneWeb could result in a conflict of interest, since the satellite specialist is also involved with the EU’s own low Earth orbit (LEO) constellation project
With the likes of SpaceX’s Starlink programme and Amazon’s Project Kuiper about to get underway, the EU has recently announced that it has plans to build its own LEO satellite constellation for broadband connectivity.
The project seeks to make broadband connectivity available throughout the EU, particularly in areas which are typically unfeasible or too expensive to cover with conventional connectivity.
Part of the motivation here is the fact that the EU is lacking a major presence in this emerging satellite broadband space, which could present a challenge for autonomy in the future.
“There are constellations out there now being developed, but they’re not European, and that does present potentially a challenge for European member states when we’re thinking about providing secure connectivity to places in Europe, but also outside Europe,” said Dominic Hayes, spectrum manager for the EU’s space programme at the European Commission’s Defence Industry & Space.
“We see a need for secure connectivity for government-type applications, be it networks, police, military, government users. There is a whole range of activities that need to be provided with secure, autonomous connectivity,” he added.
Paris-based Eutelsat is among a number of industry players that have reportedly already made initial proposals on the frequency and orbital characteristics of the system, with specific deliverables expected to be announced in the next few weeks.
However, the company’s future within this European project could be in jeopardy as a result of Eutelsat last month purchasing a 24% stake in the UK satellite operator OneWeb.
“We took good note of their decision to participate in a project that is in direct competition with the European initiative. I do not see how, structurally, an entity can have stakes in two competing projects,” said EU Commissioner Thierry Breton at the launch of the European Union Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA).
He went on to describe the European satellite project as “absolutely critical for our autonomy, for our sovereignty, for our future,” adding “we will not compromise.”
Breton said that the commission will investigate whether Eutelsat’s stake in OneWeb represents a violation of their contract with the EU. It should be noted, however, that if this does prove to be the case then the EU project could face serious setbacks, since Airbus, another key contributor to the project, owns 50% of OneWeb’s satellite manufacturing business.
Eutelsat, however, argue that it is not yet clear that the EU project will be a direct competitor of OneWeb, suggesting that they could even work together in future.
“We don’t know whether [the EU project] will be competing with OneWeb. They may have completely different missions, and it is also possible that they could be complementary,” said Eutelsat in a statement.
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