EU is close to funding its own satellite internet system

Officials are expected to hash out the remaining details of the €6 billion project next week

European Union (EU) countries and European Parliament officials are close to a finalizing a €6 billion (US$6.18 billion) deal to put a satellite internet system into orbit. The European Commission first announced plans to do so earlier this year. Lawmakers are expected to meet on November 17th to hash out the final details, according to a Reuters report.

EC research on the project started back in 2020. But the project coalesced into public visibility when the European Commission first announced plans to deploy space-based secure connectivity in February. The EC announced a proposal for regulations around the technology and a joint communication on the EU approach to space traffic management (STM). 

“In today’s digital world, space-based connectivity is a strategic asset for EU’s resilience. It enables our economic power, digital leadership and technological sovereignty, competitiveness and societal progress. Secure connectivity has become a public good for European governments and citizens.” said the EC at the time.

The goal of the project, said the EC, was to ensure long-term availability of worldwide, uninterrupted access to secure and cost-effective satellite communication services. This will, in turn, help to support the protection of critical infrastructures operating in EU member states, it said.

The EC first defined the €6 billion budget for the program at that time. “The Union’s contribution to the Programme from 2022 until 2027 is €2.4 billion at current prices,” it said. That funding was anticipated to come from public sector investments, including the European Space Agency (ESA), while the private sector is expected to absorb the remaining €3.6 billion.

While €6 billion sounds like a big outlay, the EC claims that an EU-managed internet satellite constellation would yield €17-24 billion (US$17-24 billion) and would also spur additional jobs in the EU space industry.

Calling the effort “a truly pan-European project” that would spur entrepreneurial efforts throughout Europe, EC commissioner Thierry Breton said, “Our new connectivity infrastructure will deliver high-speed internet access, serve as a back-up to our current internet infrastructure, increase our resilience and cyber security, and provide connectivity to the whole of Europe and Africa.”

Reuters reports that the proposed constellation may include up to 170 satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), with deployment starting in 2025 and finishing in 2027.

The news comes amidst controversy over SpaceX’s continued support of Starlink satellite Internet receivers in Ukraine. SpaceX sent about 20,000 Starlink satellite units to Ukraine as part of international efforts to keep Ukrainian government and military officials connected to the Internet, despite efforts by Russian military forces to disrupt and destroy the country’s critical communications infrastructure. 

Starlink told the U.S. Department of Defense in September that it could no longer afford to keep the units operating without an infusion of cash. The company claimed the operation had cost SpaceX $80 million and would exceed $100 million by the end of the year. Shortly after the news, SpaceX’s mercurial head Elon Musk appeared to do an about-face, pledging to continue operation of Starlink terminals working in Ukraine. But a report last week said 1,300 of the units went offline amidst the funding brouhaha. Pentagon officials have offered public reassurances that the U.S. government is working with Starlink to make sure the systems stay operational.

The controversy around Starlink underscores the potential hazard of relying on a private, for-profit business to operate critical infrastructure. It also provides the EU with a competitive advantage with Russia and China satellite programs, Reuters asserts. What’s more, the EU effort would also provide coverage to African nations at a time when there’s increasing attention to the development of critical next-generation communications infrastructure across the continent, an area where Chinese businesses like Huawei have an advantage. 5G subscriptions alone in the Middle East and Africa are expected to reach 263 million by 2026, according to research from Nokia.

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