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OneWeb success not guaranteed

September 21, 2020

The UK will own about 45 per cent of OneWeb which it will formally buy once the satellite operator emerges from its Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Bharti of India is the other major investor in OneWeb.

However, a meeting of the influential UK parliamentary all-party Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) committee has been held and which heard evidence from various experts on the prospects for OneWeb and the experts held mixed views about the deal. Additionally, one expert Dr Tim Farrar (of TMF Associates) was forbidden from addressing the committee.

This upset the BEIS Committee’s Chairman Darren Jones who subsequently complained to Business Secretary of States Alok Sharma, saying in a letter: “At 3pm yesterday, after the department had been informed of witnesses on Monday and publicly announced on Wednesday morning, your department contacted my clerks to inform us that you did not ‘authorise’ one of our witnesses to attend,” he wrote.

“To be clear, you have no such power to authorise witnesses to my committee and it is a gross interference with the work of parliament for the government to intervene in this way. As chair, I have acted in good faith to build a relationship of mutual cooperation and respect with your department which I had expected to receive in return.”

Sharma has subsequently said that Tim Farrar’s evidence could be heard confidentially as Sharma did not want his comments to influence the UK [and India] bid for OneWeb which has not yet closed.

As to the actual BEIS hearing, the committee heard Professor Marek Ziebart, Professor of Space Geodesy at University College London, say that OneWeb’s newly developed production systems could be transformative for the industry.

“Traditionally in satellites you would design a satellite, put loads of often novel instruments in it, then test it in a clean room to make sure it would work in space,” he said. “But if you’re building your constellation of satellites that are very similar, you can build and extensively test one then mass produce the rest. That’s a new paradigm in satellite product and OneWeb has done well to solve a lot of the challenges.”

Ziebart said that OneWeb had been turning out two satellites a day at its Florida factory prior to the bankruptcy. He added that the UK’s plan of using OneWeb as a substitute for its non-participation in Europe’s Galileo satellite positioning system could be problematic. “If you’re on the Earth and want to do communications, you just need to be able to see one satellite,” he explained. “To do [positioning] you need to be able to see four simultaneously, which means your visibility to the satellites becomes a much more demanding process.”

Ziebart explained that each of the OneWeb satellites would last only about 3 years or so, whereas a medium Earth orbiting satellite (such as the Galileo and US GPS craft) only need replacing every 10-15 years and thus the OneWeb system could be expensive. “I’m not completely against the idea, but if we’re going to have it as the thing we rely on for [positioning] I think that’s very risky.”

Carissa Christensen, CEO/founder of Bryce Space and Technology, an analytics and engineering firm working in the sector, in her evidence to the committee said that adapting existing satellites for new uses can be very tricky. She commented: “There is a widespread view that large LEO constellations have the potential to be transformative. There are risks and challenges associated with this area, so it depends if the intent [of the investment] is a predictable commercial investment or is it access to transformative technology with recognition of the potential for change and evolution in future.”

There is also reportedly disagreement amongst UK government officials over OneWeb as a potential replacement for the European Galileo system, with one report (in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper) that some are arguing that it would be easier for the UK to rejoin the €10 billion Galileo project despite the UK’s departure from the EU.

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