EU ready to compete with Elon Musk’s Starlink for universal broadband via nanosatellites
The future of a universal internet that is available in every location on the planet and affordable to all has a taken giant leap forwards. A cluster of prestigious European technology firms last week confirmed that they will jointly create a new satellite constellation known as Iris2.
If this sounds eerily similar to Elon Musk’s Starlink space broadband service, that’s because it’s designed so that Europe will have its own viable competing Low-Earth-Orbit (LEO) satellite communications service. This can be accessed instantly, even when there is no mobile phone signal in sight.
The EU had already announced Iris2 last year, but what makes this announcement significant is that it brings together the “who’s who” in European aerospace and telecommunication technology.
Huge firms including Airbus, Eutelsat (the owner of UK satellite operator OneWeb), Orange, Deutsche Telekom, and Thale are teaming up to launch hundreds of smaller, low-cost satellites (known as “nanosats”) into space, backed by €2.4 billion (£2bn) in EU funding.
What is satellite internet and how does it work?
Satellites traditionally weigh tonnes and cost billions of pounds to launch. They also need to be far away, orbiting 35,786 kilometres (22,236 miles) above the Earth. Because of this, access to space has always been limited to only a few large companies, meaning that any form of satellite communication has been expensive.
In comparison, nanosats are smaller and lighter, with each just the size of a shoebox.
If you chuck large numbers of them into low-Earth orbit — just 160km-1,000km away — they can provide instantly available, reliable broadband internet connections from anywhere in the world. This includes Antarctic research camps and rural landlocked communities in third-world countries, such as in much of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Also, unlike old-school satellites, when you’re finished with nanosats, you can either command them to land back on Earth; ask them to self-destruct; or hire a company to retrieve them from space, which gets rid of the space junk and climate change problems.
Last year, Starlink was used to provide critical internet connectivity for the Ukrainian military in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, a fact Musk proudly proclaimed on Twitter.
Luigi Scatteia, a space activity manager for consultancy PwC in France and Maghreb, says the EU has much to fear from the controversial space entrepreneur.
“At one point Russia cut out connectivity for Ukraine and Musk was the one who restored internet access to Ukraine,” he told the Standard.
“We’ve had a situation with a single guy with the capability to restore access to a whole country — it’s quite a powerful image. This is clearly a situation you don’t want to have. It’s not even about fending off competition from the US, it’s about fending off one guy.”
Initially, Iris2 will be used to provide secure space internet connections for EU governments. However, the hope is to make it into a commercial operation to expand Europe’s space market and create an ecosystem where smaller businesses can join in, Scatteia added.
How big is the satellite constellation market?
Enabling cheap global internet for everyone is a dream tech giants have had for the past decade. Facebook, Google, and Amazon have tested weather balloons and drones galore, but it is Musk’s Starlink satellite constellation that has been the most successful, Scatteia said.
In December, Starlink announced that it had more than a million active subscribers. It currently has a constellation comprising roughly 3,000 nanosats, and hopes to one day increase that number to 42,000, as its network is already getting congested by too many users.
In contrast, London-based satellite operator OneWeb has just over 580 nanosats in space and customers in 15 countries, according to a BBC article from March.
If OneWeb sounds familiar, it’s because the UK Government bailed it out of bankruptcy for £400m in 2020 — a move that has led to much criticism from MPs. Today, OneWeb is wholly owned by French satellite operator Eutelsat.
While it would make sense for OneWeb to team up with the EU to challenge Musk, British space venture capitalist Mark Bogget told the Standard it is not yet clear whether OneWeb will be included. He said this was particularly because the UK had left the EU, meaning we are no longer privy to continental internal government communications.
What else can satellite constellations do?
However, he says it’s not just about space broadband internet connections. Nanosats mean that many more companies and academics will be able to have access to cheaper space-based communication technologies. This will mean more innovative mobile app experiences for consumers harnessing data collected in space.
According to the EU, data from nanosats could be used to improve farming by monitoring cropland and fisheries from space; combat climate change using data on ocean currents and greenhouse gases; as well as using satellites to detect illegal immigration and stop piracy at sea.
To power these dreams, the IT industry, telecommunications providers and the space industry all have to work together. This includes launching payloads of satellites into orbit and collecting and transferring data from them to 4G and 5G mobile networks, and then to data centres on the ground.
“I’m really excited to see so many European players coming together with a common goal. If it works it would be incredible, it could be the start of something better [for the European space market],” said Boggett, the chief executive of Seraphim Space, which claims to be the largest and most active investor in the global space market.
“There are a number of services available today but also future services, this consortium could be a very powerful group to get things done from a European perspective.”