Europe making progress on sovereign LEO constellation as OneWeb and Starlink race ahead

U.K.-headquartered OneWeb's constellation grew to 182 satellites after its latest launch April 25. Eutelsat, which is part of a consortium studying a LEO network for Europe, does not see a conflict of interest after buying part of OneWeb. Credit: Roscosmos, Space Center Vostochny, TsENKI

By Jason Rainbow,
Published by SpaceNews, 20 May 2021

TAMPA, Fla. — The industry consortium devising a satellite network to keep the European Union from falling too far behind the megaconstellation goldrush is weeks away from nailing down key criteria.

The group has already made initial proposals on elements including frequency and orbital characteristics, according to Dominic Hayes, frequency manager for the EU space program at the European Commission’s Defence Industry and Space (DEFIS) department.

“They’re presenting those as firm deliverables in the course of the next few weeks,” Hayes told SATELLITE 2021’s EMEA + Asia Digital Forum May 18.

The European Commission picked a group of European satellite makers, operators, service and launch providers — and a terrestrial telecoms company — in December to study the feasibility of a European-owned space-based communications system.

Europe’s new low Earth orbit (LEO) flagship program aims to provide secure connectivity for citizens, commercial enterprises and public institutions, focusing on covering rural regions and areas without adequate communications services. 

It will look to complement networks that European satellite operators are already providing in geostationary and medium Earth orbits (GEO and MEO).

Consortium members are Airbus, Arianespace, Eutelsat, Hispasat, OHB, Orange, SES, Telespazio and Thales Alenia Space.

The yearlong study contract, worth 7.1 million euros ($8.6 million), was announced about a month after the British government and Indian telecoms company Bharti Global bought LEO broadband venture OneWeb out of bankruptcy. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Space Force is asking satellite operators for updates on the performance and capabilities of their networks, to help it decide how to go about buying LEO broadband services.

China, which last year added satellite internet to a list of infrastructure it aims to accelerate with government support, is developing plans for two LEO constellations totalling 13,000 spacecraft. It recently created state-owned China Satellite Network Group to coordinate the effort.

Hayes said Europe’s study is closing in on a LEO constellation that will also include MEO and GEO elements.

Marc-Henri Serre, executive vice president of the telecommunications business line at satellite builder Thales Alenia Space, said one option it is considering involves using the company’s LEO filings with the International Telecommunication Union for the project.

In parallel to the industry study, the European Commission is also reviewing potential options for a multi-orbit communications network.

Ensuring broadband can be available everywhere across the EU is a key priority, Hayes said, adding that providing secure connectivity for government services is also increasingly crucial for European digital sovereignty.

“[W]e see that there are constellations out there now being developed, but they’re not European, and that does present potentially a challenge for European member states when we’re thinking about providing secure connectivity to places in Europe, but also outside Europe,” Hayes said.

Once the initial study completes by the end of this year, discussions will begin with member states and European Parliament legislators over the initiative.

Hayes expects other industry players, including those from Europe’s growing newspace startup scene, to join the talks.

“[Newspace] needs to be factored in,” he said.

“We cannot build our constellation based upon thinking that’s been around essentially for 50 years.”

He added: “We’ve seen what’s happening in the U.S. with SpaceX and Starlink but also with Kuiper.”

In addition to technical specifications, the study is also considering various funding models to finance the space-based network.

Ruy Pinto, chief technology officer at satellite operator SES, said on the panel that it favors a “mostly private model,” and not a government-led scheme seen in Europe’s Galileo and Copernicus space programs.

“Many of the services — government services, broadband, sovereign services — are already provided by some of the largest satellite operators of the world in Europe,” Pinto said.

“We have the competencies.” 

Hayes said it is too early to say whether a competitive tender will be run for building and operating the LEO project once the study is over for the implementation phase, or whether there will be a process that involves all the EU space prime contractors in some way.

The Eutelsat question

Not wanting to wait for Europe’s sovereign LEO network, French GEO operator Eutelsat said April 27 it will buy 24% of U.K.-headquartered OneWeb.

OneWeb is already a third of the way through deploying around 650 LEO broadband satellites.

Pinto said that investment makes “the landscape a little bit more complicated,” but pointed to “a ton of money” SES is putting into its MEO constellation O3b mPOWER.

“Let’s not forget that one of the advantages of Europe is we’re in a competitive environment,” he said.

Eutelsat spokesperson Marie-Sophie Ecuer told SpaceNews that it sees no conflict of interest because the “objectives and the maturity of both projects are not the same.”

OneWeb is designed to address businesses and company requirements, as well as the needs of militaries, and will start commercial service in a few months.

“The European project, which is at the very early stages of a feasibility study, aims to address the needs of European institutions and governments,” Ecuer said.

SpaceX’s LEO constellation Starlink is even further ahead than OneWeb in terms of launches, with more than 1,600 satellites estimated to be in orbit at the time of writing.

According to Hayes, in some ways it will be beneficial to miss out on the initial megaconstellation potential coming to the market.

“We won’t have the first-mover advantage, but we will potentially take advantage of some of the economies of scale in the development of receiver technologies,” Hayes said.

“We know that — or we suspect — that Starlink are actually selling their terminals at a loss to gain market access. We wouldn’t see that as being a sustainable model, but ultimately the price will come down on those receivers, and I would like to think that we could take advantage of that mass availability of those types of receivers when we come into the market.”

SpaceX is currently offering Starlink beta testers a terminal that includes an antenna and router for $499.

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and chief operating officer, said April 6 she expects terminals coming down to the few-hundred-dollar range “within the next year or two,” and that the cost of the terminal is already less than half the $3,000 that SpaceX was originally paying for the equipment.

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