European Union advances broadband constellation despite negative assessments

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WASHINGTON — The European Union is moving ahead with its proposed broadband constellation despite two negative internal assessments.

The E.U. formally introduced legislation Feb. 15 to establish a secure connectivity satellite constellation that would serve European governments and citizens. The introduction of what’s formally known as the Union Secure Connectivity Programme came a day before the European Space Summit in Toulouse, France, where member states of the E.U. and European Space Agency will meet to discuss priorities for both organizations.

“As far as this new constellation is concerned, this is our Galileo moment, in you like, in terms of connectivity,” said Thierry Breton, E.U. commissioner for the internal market, whose portfolio includes space, at a press conference, comparing the constellation to the E.U.’s Galileo satellite navigation system and Copernicus family of Earth observation satellites.

However, neither the E.U. announcement nor Breton’s comments revealed that the constellation struggled to clear a key internal milestone. An “impact assessment” of the system twice received a negative opinion from the commission’s Regulatory Scrutiny Board, an independent panel that reviews new initiatives and legislation in what the commission calls a “quality assurance” role.

According to the legislative proposal, the commission submitted an impact assessment of the constellation to the Regulatory Scrutiny Board Oct. 11, only to receive a negative opinion. The commission sent a revised assessment to the board Dec. 21, which again provided a negative opinion Jan. 12.

The board’s negative score was based on several factors, including a lack of “analytical coherence” about why the proposed constellation is the best solution to the problems it is intended to address about broadband access and secure communications, use of a “predetermined technical solution” that isn’t specified and a lack of a timetable. The board also raised concerns about the validity of the data the commission used to back the proposed constellation as well as climate impacts from deploying it.

According to E.U. rules, an impact assessment must receive a positive opinion from the Regulatory Scrutiny Board for it to proceed. If it receives a negative opinion twice, only the commission’s Vice-President for Inter-institutional Relations and Foresight, Maroš Šefčovič, can allow the initiative to proceed.

That was the case for the broadband constellation. “Because of the political importance of this Programme, the urgency of action and having the additional clarifications and evidence viewed as satisfactorily addressing the identified shortcomings and suggested specifications of the Regulatory Scrutiny Board, the Commission – also in the light of the agreement by the Vice-President for Inter-Institutional Relations and Foresight – has considered it opportune to proceed with the Programme,” the legislative proposal stated.

Constellation details

At the press conference, Breton reiterated the goals of the system, which include filling gaps in broadband access within Europe as well as Africa and providing secure communications for European governments and military organizations through quantum encryption technologies.

The system will be developed as a public-private partnership with a total cost of six billion euros ($6.8 billion). The E.U. will provide 2.4 billion euros from various programs, including the existing Govsatcom program and other communications and defense programs. Other European governments are expected to provide 1.6 billion euros, with the private sector investing two billion euros.

That approach is known as “Option 2” in the legislative proposal. Option 1 would develop the same constellation but use public funding entirely. Option 3 would have had the E.U. invest in a commercial broadband constellation developed outside the E.U., similar to the British government’s investment in OneWeb. A baseline proposal, called Option 0, would have continued existing use of geostationary communications satellites under the Govsatcom program.

The legislative proposal and impact assessment did not go into technical details about the constellation, but Breton offered some new details at the briefing. The low Earth orbit component, he said, would feature about 100 satellites in high-inclination orbits at altitudes between 400 to 500 kilometers. They would work with existing satellites in medium and geostationary orbits, he suggested.

“We have not set the orbits yet. It’s a range,” Breton said of the LEO aspect of the system, “We have no potential issue on this.” That range, though, could bring the satellites close to both the International Space Station, which orbits at about 415 to 420 kilometers, and the Chinese space station, which orbits at an altitude of about 400 kilometers.

The satellites will be small, he said, leveraging emerging European “New Space” capabilities in smallsats and small launch vehicles, which will keep costs down. “It’s not at all the same type of configuration” as Galileo, a far more expensive system, he argued. “I’m confident in New Space, microlaunchers and the capacity of these very small satellites.”

Breton offered no details, though, on the frequency the system would use, a topic of widespread speculation in the space industry. “While there are today senior filings that can be used to serve EU governmental needs, a failure to bring them into use in the coming years would deprive the Union of a unique window of opportunity,” the impact assessment stated, but added that details about the specific filings under consideration for the constellation are described in a classified note.

“We know where to find these frequencies, so for me it’s not an issue,” Breton said, said details on what spectrum to use will involve discussions with member states and with the companies selected to participate in the program. “I know that we have answers.”

Also left to be determined is the name of the constellation. “We have many names,” he said, which could include African names to reflect the constellation’s role in providing service there. He said the E.U. will likely hold a naming competition for the system. “We already have some names, but I am sure the young generation will give us a lot of new, bright ideas.”