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EU looks to enter broadband space race

European Union looks to extend communications frontier through consortium examining the design, development and launch of a European-owned space-based communications system

With Elon Musk’s Skylink constellation set to take the lead in a market that UK government-backed OneWeb wants a slice of, the European Union (EU) has revealed itself as the next on the launch pad for satellite-based broadband services.

Details of the bid have been revealed by the European Commission (EC), which has selected a consortium of European satellite manufacturers, operators and service providers, telco operators and launch service providers to study the design, development and launch of a European-owned, space-based communication system.

The EC said the study would assess the feasibility of a new initiative aiming to strengthen European digital sovereignty and provide secure connectivity for citizens, commercial enterprises and public institutions, as well as providing global coverage for rural and “not-spot” areas.

Once it gets the green light, the new EU flagship programme would complement the existing Copernicus and Galileo craft and, said the EC, would “fully exploit” the synergies of the technological potential of the digital and space industries.

The European space-based connectivity system, advocated by internal market commissioner Thierry Breton, is intended to provide secure communication services to the EU and its member states as well as broadband connectivity for European citizens, companies and mobility sectors, strengthening EU digital sovereignty.

It will build on the EU’s GOVSATCOM programme of pooling and sharing satellite services, and is claimed to ensure a high level of reliability, resilience and security not currently available in the market. It will also leverage the EuroQCI initiative, which promotes quantum cryptography technology.

More specifically, the study phase awarded by the EC will consolidate the user and mission requirements and provide a preliminary architectural design and service provision concept, as well as associated budgetary estimates. A public-private partnership scheme will be considered and assessed during this phase.

The study will look at how the space-based system could enhance and connect to current and future critical infrastructures, including terrestrial networks, strengthening EU capability to access the cloud and providing digital services in an independent and secure way, which is said to be essential for building confidence in the digital economy and ensuring European strategic autonomy and resilience.

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The EC sees the project as being able to take advantage of, and even strengthen, the role of satellites in a 5G ecosystem, assessing interoperability while also taking into account the evolution towards upcoming 6G technologies. At the beginning of December 2020, Nokia was appointed project leader for Hexa-X, the EC’s 6G flagship initiative for research into the next generation of wireless networks.

The EC believes a sovereign satellite infrastructure will benefit a wide range of sectors, including road and maritime transport, air traffic and control, autonomous vehicle development, and many internet of things applications. It is intended to offer enhanced security in the transmission and storage of information and data supporting the needs of various users such as governmental agencies, finance and banking companies, science networks, critical infrastructures and datacentres.

The contract value of the year-long feasibility study amounts to €7.1m and the selected participants are Airbus, Arianespace, Eutelsat, Hispasat, OHB, Orange, SES, Telespazio and Thales Alenia Space.

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