OneWeb constellation infographic
OneWeb intends to cover the Earth with a constellation of 700 low-Earth-orbiting smallsats built by Airbus Defence and Space. Credit: Airbus video still

BRUSSELS, Belgium – European governments are establishing new funding sources to help Europe’s satellite telecommunications industry remain competitive as the sector adapts to global demand for fixed and mobile broadband.

Part of the effort appears tailor-made for OneWeb LLC of Britain’s Channel Islands, which is designing a constellation of more than 700 satellites in low Earth orbit to provide global Internet access.

In what may be a case of laying the groundwork for future low-cost financing from the French export-credit agency, Coface, OneWeb founder Greg Wyler has made multiple visits to French government leaders, including the ministers of research and economy, the French president and the French parliament.

OneWeb has selected Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium to launch the OneWeb constellation, mainly on Russian Soyuz rockets, starting in 2017. Europe’s Airbus Defence and Space is leading development of OneWeb’s satellites, with early production in France, and Wyler said Jan. 12 that Europe’s Thales would have a role in the network as well.

In an address to the European Space Policy conference, held here at the European Commission, Wyler proposed that the 28-nation European Union provide free basic broadband to every rural home or business – 1 megabit-per-second downlink, a maximum of 50 milliseconds of latency [a OneWeb selling point] and 10 gigabyte-per-month ceiling.

Satellite builders and operators have long criticized the U.S. and European governments for favoring high-cost terrestrial broadband over satellites, based on what satellite officials say is outdated information on satellite Internet delivery costs and reliability.

European regulators were among those backing OneWeb at the recent World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), a quadrennial meeting of global wireless frequency regulators.

Eric Fournier, chairman of the Electronic Communications Committee of Europe’s CEPT telecommunications regulators, said OneWeb at WRC-15 won a reaffirmation of its access to both Ku- and Ka-band spectrum.

Fourner said global regulators also agreed to adapt regulations in 2019 to permit frequency sharing between OneWeb’s low-orbiting constellation and geostationary satellites in higher geostationary orbit as telecommunications operators move to higher frequencies including Q- and V-band.

With so much of the impetus for new satellite applications coming from Silicon Valley, European governments are concerned that their industry, already suffering from the lack of a funding source the size of the U.S. Defense Department, will lose a step to U.S. competitors.

New money coming from the European Commission and the European Space Agency is in part a response to industry complaints government space technology R&D efforts focus on technologies too far from commercial application to be useful to industry.

ESA appears to have been first off the mark, adapting its ARTES technology research program to focus on near-term products with partners including satellite fleet operators Inmarsat, Intelsat, Eutelsat and ground-terminal builder Newtec of Belgium.

Most recently, ESA has created a Mega-constellation Opportunity financing line in ARTES, with a first set of proposals from industry due by July. ARTES contracts are mostly cost-shared, with the industrial contractor paying 50 percent of the project costs.

Newtec Chief Executive Serge van Herck, ESA Telecommunications and Integrated Applications Director Magali Vaissiere and Intelsat Chief Executive Stephen Spengler after Indigo contract signing. Credit: ESA
ESA telecom chief Magali Vaissiere, center, has accelerated the agency’s partnerships with the private sector. Shown here is the June 2015 partnership signing with Newtec of Belgium and fleet operator Intelsat. ESA is now looking at mega-constellation research. Credit: ESA
ESA telecom chief Magali Vaissiere, center, has accelerated the agency’s partnerships with the private sector. Shown here is the June 2015 partnership signing with Newtec of Belgium and fleet operator Intelsat. ESA is now looking at mega-constellation research. Credit: ESA

ESA Telecommunications Director Magali Vaissiere said the agency is determined to act fast to create funding lines and award contracts to maximize impact on European companies bidding for commercial work.

“We plan to create a new, dedicated [ARTES] element to support European industry as it seeks to participate fully in this next wave of big, global constellations,” Vaissiere said. “This really is an area where it’s essential to move at the speed of the market. Public players have to be mindful of the need to help – or get out of the way.”

Vaissiere said ESA would be asking its member governments in December for additional support “to open up large new markets” as Europe’s satellite sector seeks to integrate itself with next-generation – 5G – terrestrial mobile broadband networks.

Karim Michel Sabbagh, chief executive of satellite fleet operator SES, said the volume of mobile broadband data is increasing so fast – with most of it being video – that it will cripple even the most modern terrestrial networks without help from satellites.

The European Commission’s Horizon 2020 R&D program has a line for space projects that has been regularly criticized for focusing on academic work rather than near-term technologies that industry can use. Jean-Jacques Tortora, secretary-general of the Eurospace industry association, repeated that critique during the conference.

“Industry doesn’t sell technology, it sells products,” Tortora said, adding that Horizon 2020 has spent too much on ideas with low Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs), a measure of how close a given research area is to being developed and tested.

But moving to higher TRLs means funding fewer, more-expensive projects, possibly including flight demonstrations, something that Horizon 2020 has not supported.

Some of the governments evaluating Horizon 2020 proposals have little or no space industry in their borders and limited knowledge of what industry needs, Tortora said.

“There is not the slightest involvement of industry beyond the initial public consultations” for Horizon 2020, Tortora said. “Do you think this is the way to build industrial leadership? I do not.”

The European Commission appears to be listening. It recently opened a funding line inside Horizon 2020 for “Maturing Satellite Communications Technologies” including terabit-per-second satellites, active antennas and flexible, reconfigurable payloads. The TRL levels should be such that successful products could be on the market by 2020, the commission said.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.