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Europe could fund global LEO broadband

December 11, 2020

The European Commission seems enthusiastic about backing its own dedicated Low Earth Orbit system for satellite-based broadband.

Speaking during the European Space Week 2020 its Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton, spoke in favour of a Quantum Communications Infrastructure satellite scheme. The European Commission has awarded a group of European telcos, satellite manufacturers and satellite operators a contract to study the feasibility of such a project. A conclusion could be reached late in 2021.

Breton added: “We will complement access to broadband with satellite connectivity with a low-orbit constellation. European broadband connectivity is neither ubiquitous nor robust enough to address our digital inequalities […] More than ever, we need high-speed internet all over Europe and reliable, secure and cost-effective communication capacity for both our governments and businesses. My teams are already working to define the architecture of the space-based connectivity system to deliver service from 2025.”

Breton is backing the establishment of a €1 billion fund to boost such ideas and to include start-up ventures.

Delegates were told that the world’s first quantum communications satellite, Micius, was launched back in 2016 by China and that China was already designing a much larger craft for launch in 2026.

One comment, from Germany’s Federal Coordinator for Aerospace, Thomas Jarzombek, described the proposal as fascinating but asked whether the LEO-based broadband scheme would be free for the world’s citizens just as the US Global Positioning System (GPS) and Europe’s Galileo positioning system were free for users.

Jarzombek said that the idea of free and globally available broadband would benefit residents of countries where the terrestrial internet had been deliberately shut down.

Ekaterini Kavvada, the European Commission’s head of development, also supported the concept and told delegates that it was an obvious example of combining space-based infrastructure with telecommunications and quantum technology.

Investment bank Exane/BNPP, in its report on the meeting, said: “We see this development as positive for European Satellite operators and Eutelsat in particular. Facing increased competition from the US, China and soon the UK (with its ownership of OneWeb), Europe is reacting and making progress on its space policy. This proposal comes after the EU failed in its attempts to buy OneWeb and in its initiatives to transform Telesat’s LEO project into an EU-Canada partnership.”

The bank cautions that a EU-funded LEO constellation would still be a long way off (2025-2030? suggests the bank). “But we believe that it would be a positive for Eutelsat as the French satellite operator has no LEO Constellation nor enough resources to develop one. Given’s Eutelsat focus on consumer broadband connectivity, we believe the French operator is well-placed to be selected to operate all or part of this constellation. Note that SES does not have a strategic focus on consumer broadband connectivity but has a strong track record in GovSatCom. Overlaps between this project and SES mPower in GovSatCom are likely hurdles this new constellation initiative will have to address. We also believe that political progress on a common European space policy increases the likelihood of a Eutelsat-SES merger down the road.”

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