EU satellite operators back LEO scheme

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Currently neither SES, Eutelsat nor Hispasat, Europe’s three major satellite operators, have backed low Earth orbiting (LEO) systems with consumer facing broadband services. But the three say they are prepared to co-invest in the European Commission’s suggestion for an EU-wide LEO system.

The European Commission is backing the concept of a dedicated LEO system for satellite-based broadband. Speaking in December 2020 during the EU’s Space Week 2020 its Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton, spoke in favour of a Quantum Communications Infrastructure satellite scheme. The European Commission (EC) has awarded a group of European telcos, satellite manufacturers and satellite operators a modest €7 million contract to study the feasibility of such a project. A conclusion could be reached late in 2021.

Breton said: “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.”

SES, Eutelsat and Hispasat said this week – in a jointly-issued ‘position paper’ – that they are prepared to participate in a EU-wide LEO scheme. The trio agree that a European satellite infrastructure would help meet the objectives of the EC in terms of connectivity to all European citizens, and would serve enterprises and public entities across Europe and beyond. The operators also highlight how they can play a central role in the satellite communications ecosystem by linking the technological advances of the space industry with the needs of society in the most cost-effective way.

“Eutelsat, Hispasat and SES strongly believe a European satellite infrastructure would strengthen the strategic autonomy of the EU by providing it with the ability to compete with ambitious constellation projects being deployed or planned on other continents at an accelerated pace, often benefiting, directly or indirectly, from massive governmental support,” said the statement.

“Accordingly, the three satellite operators urge the EU to take a stance in a domain where Europe is lagging behind other space powers. Moreover, due to the limited availability of radio spectrum and orbital positions, only a few worldwide constellations will ultimately be able to coexist: Europe cannot afford to let other countries pre-empt these strategic space-based resources, nor can it be absent from the major new opportunities opened up by this next generation infrastructure, complementary to terrestrial networks. Finally, the design, implementation and operation of such a large telecom and space infrastructure project would give the entire EU Space value chain a level playing field in terms of being able to preserve and enhance its competitiveness on a global scale and to maintain and grow skills, technologies and production capabilities inside Europe,” the joint release added.

SES already has a viable Mid-Earth orbiting (MEO) system in the form of O3b and new O3b satellites will be added to the existing fleet this year. Eutelsat has some IoT satellite plans of its own and is also backing major activity in the form of its KONNECT craft for broadband services.

However, with Elon Musk’s Starlink service now operating around 1000 LEO satellites and licences in place to start services in the UK, Germany, Greece and elsewhere, it could be questioned whether any EU-scheme could match Musk’s aggressive timetable – or pricing – for an alternate service. Additionally, projects such as OneWeb and the promised Jeff Bezos-backed Project Kuiper LEO schemes might be good for consumer competitiveness but less favourable for an EU LEO system.


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