Europe ready to unveil sovereign broadband constellation plan

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TAMPA, Fla. — The European Commission will unveil the architecture for its proposed satellite broadband constellation “in a few weeks,” the European Union commissioner in charge of space policy said Jan. 25.

Thierry Breton told the 14th European Space Conference in Brussels that he will also present a legislative proposal for the project in the coming weeks, which would enable Europe to start searching for partners to create the sovereign multi-orbit network.

“Once presented, I count on the Member States and the European Parliament to move fast, so we can hopefully conclude in a year of time the negotiation and have the first services deployed already by 2024,” he said.

“I know it is ambitious, but I know that it is also feasible.”

He said Europe’s space-based connectivity infrastructure “will reduce European dependencies on non-European commercial initiatives under development,” as Starlink of the U.S. and U.K.-based OneWeb expand their broadband megaconstellations.

The legislation must still be adopted by the European Parliament and approved by two-thirds of the European Union’s 27 member states.

The architecture

Breton said the feasibility of the constellation’s architecture had been tested through studies with established space companies and startups over the past year.

While finer details of the planned network will soon be announced during a news conference, Breton stressed the importance of governmental and commercial services.

“It should integrate from the start the military usage and needs,” he added. 

“Using [low Earth orbit] satellites, it opens up several fields of interest in this perspective.”

Breton said the network aims to “provide high-speed internet access for all Europeans” but will “also provide Africa with the necessary connectivity, offering a European alternative” to other satellite networks.

Europe’s multi-orbit constellation plans will also leverage quantum encryption to secure the network.

“The other regions of the world are initiating it; Europe cannot lag behind on this technological dimension, which will condition the cybersecurity of tomorrow,” Breton said.

Europe awarded an Airbus-led group a 15-month contract in May 2021 to study a quantum technology-powered network for Europe called EuroQCI.

Airbus is also part of the industry consortium of European satellite makers, operators, service and launch providers that has been helping devise space-based connectivity infrastructure for the E.U. The other members are Arianespace, Eutelsat, Hispasat, OHB, Orange, SES, Telespazio and Thales Alenia Space.

Additionally, the E.U. awarded two groups of mostly early-stage space companies study contracts in December for the sovereign network: New Symphonie and UN:IO.

New Symphonie is led by market intelligence firm Euroconsult and satellite surveillance startup Unseenlabs — both based in France.

Three German ventures are leading UN:IO: satellite maker Reflex Aerospace, launch provider Isar Aerospace and laser specialist Mynaric.

UN: IO plans include a first demonstrator as early as 2023, followed by more than 400 laser-linked satellites to give Europe a fully operational network by 2025.

Space traffic

Breton said he also expects to unveil a strategy for space traffic management (STM) “in the coming weeks,” which will aim to strengthen Europe’s capabilities amid increasingly crowded orbits.

He said the European Space Surveillance and Tracking (EU SST) system could currently monitor more than 240 satellites, including those in Europe’s Galileo navigation constellation and the Copernicus Earth observation program, in real-time to protect them against collision risks.

However, “faced with the challenges of the multiplication of threats,” he said Europe “must go further and define a holistic” approach for STM.

He said this includes reducing Europe’s “dependencies on the American systems while ensuring, of course, interoperability.”