The more the merrier? The question may arise in the field of the spatial Internet. Ever since Starlink hit the headlines, it seems like everyone needs their own constellation of low-orbit satellites. The latest announcement for today, of course, concerns the upcoming marriage between the French company Eutelsat and the British company OneWeb, which has 428 of its LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellites already deployed in its dowry.
The two groups confirmed on July 26 that they had signed a memorandum of understanding for a merger that would value OneWeb at $3.4 billion. But this organization still has a long way to go to establish itself in a market where so many players have already revealed their ambitions, from SpaceX to Amazon (Project Kuiper), through Boeing or China (Project Guowang). This is the whole paradox of the industry, given the potential of the spatial Internet. Such enthusiasm may give the impression that this technology is destined to replace much of terrestrial telecommunications in the long run. This is not true.
“These constellations are very expensive, and they are far from proving their economic viability,” says Asma Mhalla, lecturer at Science Po in Paris, who specializes in the digital economy. In the vast majority of cases, connecting a user using terrestrial cables and antennas a few meters long will be cheaper than connecting via satellites a few hundred meters high (logically).
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Thus, despite its catchy name, the space internet remains a niche market with a reduced list of targets. The first ? White zones, these territories are poorly or not connected at all, because the topology of their lands (mountains, etc.) makes it difficult to connect. “In France, 1 to 4% of households are not connected to fiber and 5G. And in some regions, such as Alaska, Mexico or many African countries, this percentage is much higher,” says Eva Bernecke, CEO of Eutelsat. .
Europe wants its own sovereign constellation
The Internet of Space is also energizing the transport sector, which sees these satellites as the ideal solution for connecting ships or aircraft on the move. “It is also not surprising that the shipping giant CMA CGM supported this merger,” said Julien Nochetti, a research fellow at the French Institute of International Affairs. But, perhaps, the greatest appetites for the spatial Internet are in the public sphere.
Thus, in February last year, the European Union presented an extensive project aimed at creating its constellation of satellites in sovereign low orbit. “The aim is, in part, to expand the resources to securely communicate and connect infrastructures that host critical information,” explains Pacombe Revillon, CEO of Euroconsult, the space-sector firm responsible for co-leading the group. studies on this subject by the European Commission.
Satellites in low orbit may also prove useful outside the EU area to link the armed forces of Member States in their theaters of operations. “At a time when automatic drones are increasingly used in defense, constellations have a number of advantages, in particular planetary coverage and such low latency that it is almost real time,” explains Xavier Pasco, director of the Strategic Research Foundation (FRS).
Faced with the rise of anti-satellite missiles and cyberattacks, these myriads of small modules also have the advantage of being harder to block than a single large satellite. Despite the Russian offensive, more than 150,000 Ukrainians are now connected to the Internet thanks to Starlink equipment rushed by Elon Musk’s company.
“Behind Gafam stands the American government”
“It is for this reason that so many states are interested in the spatial Internet: in the event of a cyber attack, it offers them an additional security system,” confirms Julien Nochetti. If in the United States it may seem that the constellation projects have come out of the hat of a few wealthy tech bosses, make no mistake: “Gafam is backed by the American government, which encourages this development in every possible way,” Asma Mhalla emphasizes. Is it reasonable then to marry Eutelsat to OneWeb to create a European champion? It has not escaped industry observers that India’s Bharti group is OneWeb’s majority shareholder, and the mention of “special rights” that the British government (11% of OneWeb) will retain has raised concerns. Can such an entity meet the EU’s sovereignty needs?
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On the same day, Eutelsat wanted to assure us of the guarantees that could be offered in Brussels. “The special rights of the British government will be exercised around the limited perimeter of the facility. And we can easily develop parts of low-orbit groups under the sovereignty of France to meet the specific needs of the European authorities,” we explain. Eva Bernecke, CEO of Eutelsat. All that remains is to get the competition authorities to dub the Eutelsat/OneWeb marriage in the coming months, and then step up activity. Constellations in low orbit, by their nature, have a potential perimeter of global action. To offset their high cost, it will be necessary to succeed in attracting an international clientele. But increasingly spoiled for choice.
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