EU flag with satellites

EU agrees to support €6bn European satellite system

Image credit: Canva

The new satellite internet system could help the bloc speed up the rollout of broadband internet in Europe and offer an alternative to Chinese competitors in Africa.

The European Union has reached a deal to build and operate a €6bn (£5.2bn) satellite internet system, driven by the bloc's push to boost its own space and communications sectors and ensure security by cutting its reliance on foreign suppliers. 

The initiative was first proposed in February, but the 27-nation bloc only agreed to it today (18 November). 

In order to fund the scheme, the Commission wants to divert £2.4bn from various EU programmes and use unspent money from other EU projects. The private sector is expected to also contribute by providing the remaining £3.6bn. 

“Space plays a growing role in our daily lives, our economic growth, our security, and our geopolitical weight," said Thierry Breton, Commissioner for the Internal Market, when the project was first announced. 

"Our new connectivity infrastructure will deliver high-speed internet access, serve as a back-up 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 start-ups and Europe as a whole to be at the forefront of technological innovation.”

Non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) satellite systems orbit the Earth, tracked by satellite dishes as they move, and can deliver high-speed and responsive internet access.

A gateway Earth station (connected to the internet) tracks a non-geostationary orbit satellite as it moves across the sky. The satellite relays data to a user terminal – such as a dish fixed to the side of a house – which in turn is connected to a router.

The announcement of this new scheme comes amid growing concerns about Russian and Chinese military advances in outer space and a surge in satellite launches.

By having its own satellite internet system, the European block expects to be able to speed up the rollout of broadband internet in Europe, ensure the protection of internet connections in emergency cases and expand internet access in Africa, where China has a significant influence over the broadband market.

In the event of a major outage, a disaster or a war, a European space-based network could back-up terrestrial networks in the event of major outages or disasters, and offer connections in places not covered by traditional service providers.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has made this scenario seem more likely than previously expected. Elon Musk's Starlink satellite network has provided crucial battlefield communications for Ukrainian military forces since the beginning of the war with Russia.

The service has assisted front-line reconnaissance drone operators in targeting artillery strikes on key Russian assets, among other missions. However, it has also shown to be dependent on Musk's personal commitment, with him threatening to stop funding the service. 

Initial development and satellite deployment could start next year, the Commission has said, with as many as 170 low-orbit satellites being produced and launched between 2025 and 2027, leading to a full service with high-level encryption called quantum cryptography being live in 2028.

Earlier this year, Inmarsat chief executive Rajeev Suri welcomed the increase in innovation in satellite constellations in low orbit that has taken place over the last few years but called for better industry and regulatory co-ordination as they are launched.

UK agency Ofcom has recently announced more spectrum for satellite services including Starlink and Telesat that could boost internet coverage for people living in rural areas as well as planes and ships.

Last year saw a record number of objects launched into space, with 1,807 leaving the planet in 2021 – a 42 per cent increase compared to 2020. During 2020 and 2021, there were 3,081 objects launched into space, which accounts for approximately 25 per cent of the objects ever launched.

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