EU accelerates space connectivity programme

European Commission puts forward a plan for an EU space-based secure communication system designed to ensure long-term availability of worldwide uninterrupted access to secure and cost-effective satellite connectivity services

As the space-based broadband market hots up, with players such a OneWeb accelerating their response to established players such as Elon Musk’s Starlink, the European Union (EU) has revealed a space programme that funds two infrastructures – Galileo for positioning, enterprises and citizens, and Copernicus for Earth observation.

The EU believes that in today’s digital world, space-based connectivity is a strategic asset for resilience. It enables economic power, digital leadership and technological sovereignty, competitiveness and societal progress. Secure connectivity has, it said, become a public good for European governments and citizens.

In practice, the EU has tabled two initiatives – a proposal for a regulation on space-based secure connectivity and a joint communication on an EU approach on space traffic management (STM).

The EU’s current space programme already provides data and services for applications such as transport, agriculture, and crisis response to the fight against climate change. Yet it now accepts that because of new challenges and increased international competition, its space policy needs to constantly evolve and adapt if EU member states want to continue enjoying freely the benefits that space brings.

The new initiatives are intended to help safeguard the efficiency and security of current assets while developing European space technology to the benefit of citizens and economies.

Thierry Breton, commissioner for the EU’s internal market, noted that currently, only 56% of EU households had broadband access and there were still too many “dead zones”. In response, the EU was aiming to provide very high-speed internet access everywhere on the continent by putting an end to “white areas”, he said.

As a result, the European Commission (EC) is putting forward a plan for an EU space-based secure communication system designed to ensure the long-term availability of worldwide uninterrupted access to secure and cost-effective satellite communication services. It will support the protection of critical infrastructures, surveillance, external actions, crisis management and applications that are critical for member states’ economy, security and defence.

The EU also believes citizens will benefit from the technological advantages, reliability and operational performance of such satellite communication services ensuring high-speed internet connections across the EU.

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Noting that both governmental user needs and satellite communication technology are changing rapidly, the new system is also designed to allow for the provision of commercial services by the private sector that can enable access to advanced, reliable and fast connections to citizens and businesses across Europe, including in communication dead zones, ensuring cohesion across member states.

This is one of the targets of the proposed 2030 Digital Decade. The system will also provide connectivity over geographical areas of strategic interest, for instance Africa and the Arctic, as part of the EU Global Gateway strategy.

“Space plays a growing role in our daily lives, our economic growth, our security and our geopolitical weight,” said Breton. “Our new connectivity infrastructure will deliver high-speed internet access, serve as a backup to our current internet infrastructure, increase our resilience and cyber security, and provide connectivity to the whole of Europe and Africa. It will be a truly pan-European project, allowing our many startups and Europe as a whole to be at the forefront of technological innovation.”

The total cost is estimated at €6bn, and the EU’s contribution to the programme from 2022 to 2027 is €2.4bn at current prices. The funding will come from different sources of the public sector, such as the EU budget, member states, European Space Agency contributions and private sector investments.

The new initiative follows the creation in September 2021 of a consortium of more than 20 European space sector companies in response to an EC call for tenders. The New Space Solutions for Long-Term Availability of Reliable, Secure, Cost-Effective Space-Based Connectivity consortium, known as New Symphonie, is being led by satellite-based radio-frequency detection services provider Unseenlabs and global strategy consulting and market intelligence firm Euroconsult.

It was set up specifically for the call, which was launched by the EC with assistance from its Directorate General Defence Industry and Space.

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