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MP criticises UK’s OneWeb purchase

October 16, 2020

By Chris Forrester

A UK opposition MP has savaged the UK government’s involvement in satellite company OneWeb, currently in Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganisation.

The UK is putting at least £400 million into the company (with India’s Bharti matching the investment). OneWeb is likely to emerge from bankruptcy before the end of this year.

Chi Onwurah, a Labour party MP and Shadow minister for science, research & technology, says that the UK’s involvement in OneWeb is “careless and slapdash”. Her comments come after the UK government admitted it had closed down a study into an independent British satellite navigation system. The study cost £64 million.

She argues that two years ago “the [government] announced they would embark on a scheme to create a home-grown satellite navigation system to replace the UK’s access to the European Galileo system – after sinking billions in Galileo’s development but failing to negotiate our continued access to it.”

Onwurah says the initial estimates for a British rival to Europe’s Galileo system was an “eyewatering” £5 billion. She reminds readers to Parliament’s The House magazine that on his first speech as Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated: “Let’s get going now on our own position navigation and timing satellite and earth observation systems”.

Hence the UK involvement in OneWeb, which she goes on to describe as having been made without scrutiny. “Media reports at the time seemed well briefed by government that the intention was to help mitigate the UK’s loss of access to Galileo. Just one problem – OneWeb has no sat-nav capabilities. Buying a satellite company to deliver GPS despite it having no GPS, is up there with giving a contract to a ferry company with no ferries.”

“Ministers have refused to answer my question about how much adapting the OneWeb constellation to deliver navigational capability is estimated to cost,” says Onwurah.

“The government has since rowed back, claiming they never intended to use OneWeb for navigation. Their second U-turn on space in just one summer. It is unclear whether this investment will even support jobs in the UK’s space sector, with the satellites continuing to be manufactured in Florida. What makes it even worse is that ministers are ducking scrutiny. Earlier this month, a consultant who advised the government on the deal and was summoned for evidence by the BEIS select committee, said that he was not authorised by BEIS to appear – a breach of protocol and a clear attempt by government to avoid accountability,” says Onwurah.

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