The European Commission has approved plans to build a low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation, providing broadband services across the EU and challenging SpaceX’s Starlink
The notion of technological sovereignty has become an incredibly hot topic for political leaders around the world in recent years. From 5G networks to semiconductor chips, it is becoming increasingly apparent to world leaders that the major technologies at the heart of their economies are heavily reliant on companies and supply chains beyond their influence, leading to renewed efforts to develop their domestic tech industry.
Indeed, this appears to be the main driving force behind plans tabled by the EU Commission, outlining a plan to build a new €6 billion LEO satellite system.
This as-yet-unnamed satellite system could deliver broadband communications to consumers and enterprises throughout the EU and Africa, prove an encrypted channel for sensitive data, and serve as a backup for traditional broadband networks if they become compromised by cyberattacks.
"[Our project] represents what we need to be doing as a Continent which is increasingly aware of its geopolitical responsibilities," said EU Commissioner of the Internal Market, Thierry Breton. “This is of central importance in terms of our strategic and technical sovereignty.”
Ultimately, this new constellation could support a wide range of technologies and services to help bolster the EU economy, including the IoT, edge computing, autonomous driving, and smart agriculture. The Commission said the project will generate jobs and bolster the competitiveness of the EU’s space ecosystem, with a cumulative gross value added of between €17 and €24 billion.
The EU will commit €2.4 billion to the project between 2022 and 2027, with the remainder funded by individual member states, the European Space Agency, and the private sector. The EU will reportedly seek a consortium to bid for the right to build and operate the system.
Companies including Airbus, SES, and Eutelsat were previously contracted to carry out technical studies related to the plan and would be prime candidates for involvement in any such consortium.
Current plans suggest that limited services from the constellation would begin as early as 2024, but full services would not be available until 2027.
It is worth noting that this plan has been agreed only after two previous failed attempts, with detractors saying the plan would be overly expensive to implement and would negatively impact existing commercial broadband services. However, amendments to the plan have seen it pushed through, despite initial reservations.
The EU already notably has two satellite systems in orbit above the Earth: Galileo, a global navigation satellite system that provides EU countries with Global Positioning System (GPS) services, and Copernicus, used for Earth observation.
Interest in consumer broadband services via LEO satellite has boomed in recent years, with technological advances beginning to make the concept cost-effective for the first time. SpaceX’s Starlink constellation is something of a poster boy for this evolving sector, having launched over 2,000 satellites since 2018, with plans to increase this number to 12,000 or more in the coming years.
But the ecosystem is evolving rapidly, with new players beginning to arrive at significant scale. In 2020, the UK government and Bharti Airtel rescued satellite firm OneWeb from bankruptcy and a wave of investment now sees the company aiming to launch global commercial services before the end of this year. Amazon too has long had plans to launch its own LEO constellation, Kuiper, with satellite prototypes currently planned for launch in Q4 of this year.
The space race is heating up on a global scale and the European Commission wants to ensure that the EU plays a central role in its development.
In similar news, last year Breton headed up efforts to develop Europe’s semiconductor ecosystem, notably speaking with the CEOs of Intel and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) Europe to encourage them to expand their operations on the continent. Such talks have seemingly borne fruit, with Intel announcing a $20 billion ‘ecosystem-wide’ chip project in Europe last summer, including opening a new chip fab.
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