UK government explores plan to open £160m satellite broadband fund

Second UK government connectivity funding announcement in two days sees plan to expand space-based broadband and 5G coverage for remote areas

Hot on the heels of a scathing report from the UK’s House of Commons Science, Innovation and Technology Committee warning that time is running out for it to translate high-level ambitions into practical plans and that there is “not a moment to lose” if the UK is to realise the full potential of the currently booming space sector, the UK government has announced it is working to establish a potential £160m scheme to fund the next generation of satellite communications development, in particular low Earth orbit (LEO) craft.

Noting that space-based platforms will be key to offering connectivity in remote and rural parts of the country, bridging the stubbornly remaining digital divide, the UK government pinpointed LEO satellites as representing the next generation of space technology, offering unparalleled resilience and resistance to disabling attempts. It added that LEO satellites’ vital importance was demonstrated during Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, when they ensured continuous and reliable connectivity, even in the most challenging circumstances.

The new Connectivity in Low Earth Orbit scheme (CLEO) is designed to build on the country’s established and growing satellite industry by providing UK researchers and businesses with critical support to drive the development of new constellations. This would include supporting smarter satellites with better hardware, using artificial intelligence (AI) to make data delivery faster, and connecting satellites together for improved connection – all creating interconnected networks serving billions worldwide. The proposed scheme would ensure UK businesses are supported in developing the next generation of LEO satellites, driving the UK’s satellite industry towards global leadership.

To propel the UK’s capabilities and long-term ambitions in the space sector, the government is exploring grant funding of up to £100m. It is also exploring whether to support this grant funding with an additional £60m from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) UK-backed Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems (ARTES) programme, which supports UK industry in delivering commercial satellite communications infrastructure.

The new UK government package would be complemented by a range of live 5G integration projects such as the 5G testing facility at ESCAT in Harwell, Oxfordshire, aiming to establish networks in underserved and remote areas, bringing high-speed internet and connections to every part of the UK, while addressing a major priority to improve future telecoms, as laid out in the government’s Science and Technology Framework.

The government claims the development would mark the UK’s most significant ever investment in satellite communications, unleashing the country’s potential to become a global giant of the satellite industry while creating hundreds of highly skilled jobs. It added that the scheme would establish UK leadership in many critical areas for the next generation of LEO satellite communication technologies such as AI and machine learning. CLEO would also aim to deliver the R&D needed to support the launch of hundreds of satellites into space, no less than “revolutionising” the UK’s communication infrastructure and closing connectivity gaps.

“Tackling the digital divide is at the heart of empowering our citizens wherever they live, and by investing in the vital research and development that CLEO would facilitate, we can level up our country while growing the economy through high-quality jobs,” said UK science, innovation and technology secretary Michelle Donelan. “This proposed record investment is also potentially a huge opportunity to harness our reputation as a world leader in innovation and R&D investment, supporting leading UK businesses to deliver the next generation of satellites and positioning the UK as a true space superpower.”

“[The] announcement is a vital step towards the delivery of a key priority of the UK Space Agency – to maximise the potential of low Earth orbit and become a global leader in next-generation satellite communications technologies by building our ability to service future high-volume constellations,” said Harshbir Sangha, missions and capabilities delivery director at the UK Space Agency. “Our intent is to catalyse investment, build on existing capabilities and meet the challenges associated with seizing a significant share of a fast-moving global market, by leveraging our growing national space programme and leading investments in commercial ESA programmes such as ARTES.”

The announcement follows the reintroduction of the government’s National Space Council, as part of the UK’s mission to become a space superpower. However, as noted by the UK’s House of Commons Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, the industry is still attempting to deal with the shockwaves from the much-publicised failure of the Virgin Orbit Start Me Up horizontal launch from Spaceport Cornwall at Newquay on 9 January 2023.

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