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UK Pushing to Combine Oneweb Gen 2 and European Sovereign Constellation Efforts

TAMPA, Fla. — The U.K.’s space minister hopes to convince Europe to use OneWeb’s proposed second-generation satellites instead of pursuing a standalone constellation now that the British operator has merged with Eutelsat of France.

Europe’s plans for a global sovereign connectivity network by 2027 could take the form of hosted payloads on the upgraded low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites Eutelsat aims to deploy around the same time, George Freeman told SpaceNews in an interview.

Combining efforts would save costs during tough economic conditions while also reducing the mass of objects in space.

Eutelsat has estimated OneWeb Gen 2 would cost $4 billion, while Europe’s IRIS² — or Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite — is a 6 billion euro project to be 40%-funded by European Union members, with commercial companies expected to cover the rest.

“There’s plenty of people looking at this [Eutelsat-OneWeb merger] deal and saying, hang on, surely you can kill two birds with one stone,” Freeman said.

The idea comes as European Space Agency member states prepare to discuss proposals for new major initiatives during the ESA Space Summit taking place 6-7 November in Seville, Spain.

“It’s quite an interesting moment in the space economy,” Freeman added, “does security mean that you have to have your own constellation [or can you] have your own protected, encrypted bandwidth comms platform on shared spectrum? 

“Well, if we’re going to have a sustainable space economy, it must be the latter.”

LEO ambitions

The British government helped rescue OneWeb from bankruptcy in 2020 and continues to hold special voting rights for the company after Eutelsat took it over last month. The U.K. also has an 11% equity stake in the combined group and a representative on both company boards.

However, Freeman said any move to combine a OneWeb Gen 2 constellation with a government payload for Europe would also depend on Eutelsat’s other investors. 

Other large shareholders in publicly listed Eutelsat include Indian conglomerate Bharit, French investment bank Bpifrance, and Japanese internet giant SoftBank. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

Eutelsat spokesperson Katie Dowd declined to comment.

During financial results Oct. 26, Eutelsat chief financial officer Christophe Caudrelier said the company was still in talks about securing the funds for Gen 2, including with several export credit agencies.

OneWeb has 633 first-generation satellites in LEO for providing low-latency connectivity services to government and enterprise customers worldwide.

In May, SpaceX launched a OneWeb Gen 2 technology demonstrator using the same platform as the 150-kilogram Gen 1 spacecraft.

Eutelsat has said full-scale OneWeb Gen 2 satellites would be bulkier, able to provide three to five times more capacity, and would only be around 300 in number because Eutelsat’s geostationary fleet would help cover high-demand areas.

OneWeb’s satellites were built by prime contractor Airbus OneWeb Satellites, a Florida-based joint venture the operator shares with Europe’s Airbus.

Much of Gen 2 would likely be built in France and Germany, Freeman said, “but there are bits of the supply chain that we are ready to supply.”

The British government sees the development and manufacturing of OneWeb Gen 2 as a rare opportunity to boost the U.K.’s international standing in the global satellite communications market, and is in talks with Eutelsat and potential suppliers to promote U.K. involvement. No decisions have been made on OneWeb Gen 2.

Last-minute pivot

It is unclear how receptive Europe would be to moving completely away from a standalone constellation for IRIS², which is partly in response to Starlink’s sprawling LEO broadband network and efforts underway in China for a broadband megaconstellation.

Europe aims to use IRIS² for a range of services, including very secure communications between EU members, down to publicly accessible commercial services using different space systems proposed by an industrial consortium that won a competitive bidding process — a group of large European space companies that includes Eutelsat.

The U.K. government expects the industry proposal will include a mix of new spacecraft for very secure EU services and use of existing space capabilities such as OneWeb for commercial services, although the group is still developing proposals.

A top EU commissioner has also warned that Eutelsat’s involvement in the group presents a potential conflict of interest because the United Kingdom is no longer part of the EU following Brexit — although Eutelsat has said its stake in OneWeb would be sufficiently ring-fenced. Despite now being part of Eutelsat, OneWeb remains based in the United Kingdom.

Johanna Bernsel, the European Commission’s spokesperson for areas including defense and space, declined to comment on negotiations with potential contractors.

She said the European Commission aims to issue a request for best and final offers for its constellation by mid-November, with a view to signing the concession contract early 2024.

The British government announced plans Aug. 1 to create a potential £160 million ($194 million) scheme to fund next-generation satellite communications technologies to expand its global space presence. 

It would mark the country’s most significant ever investment in satellite communications, the U.K. government said in a news release, although it is subject to a business case and other approvals.

The U.K. estimates it currently accounts for £17.5 billion of a $46 billion global space economy, about 4.1% of the market.