Government spends £400m to acquire bankrupt satellite firm

Written by Sam Trendall on 3 July 2020 in News
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After being shut out of EU satellite programme in light of Brexit, UK joins consortium with Indian telecoms giant Bharti to buy OneWeb

The UK's exit from the European Union means that the country will no longer have access to these Galileo satellites    Credit: GSA

The UK government has spent £400m to acquire London-based satellite firm OneWeb – just over three months after the company filed for bankruptcy.

The acquisition saw the government join forces with Indian telecoms firm Bharti. The two parties beat off a number of rival bids to secure the deal for a sum in the region of $1bn. 

The deal – which remains subject to approval by regulators, bankruptcy courts in the US, and the company’s creditors – will provide the “first UK sovereign space capability”, according to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

The government has been looking for a way to ensure the UK has access to a satellite navigation and positioning network since 2018, when it became clear that, following Brexit, the country would be shut out of the secure parts of the EU Galileo satnav network that are designed for use by the emergency services and the military. The UK had already spent about £1.2bn on supporting the development of the Galileo at the time it was effectively booted out of the programme.


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OneWeb, which was founded in the Channel Islands in 2012, has already launched 74 satellites that are providing broadband services. The company’s original aim was to assemble a constellation of 650 low-earth-orbiting satellites. But, six weeks ago, the firm filed a request with US authorities to increase this number to 48,000.

“This larger OneWeb constellation will allow for greater flexibility to meet soaring global connectivity demands,” it said.

In March, the company filed for bankruptcy in the US – where it is jointly headquartered – to try and find a buyer and secure funding for its future.

Announcing the agreement of a deal with the UK-Bharti consortium today, the firm said it “remains ready to continue building its communications system to deliver transformative connectivity available everywhere, including to businesses and people in remote and rural parts of the world – starting with the Arctic”.

In addition to enabling OneWeb’s planned broadband rollout, the government claimed that “the deal also offers the UK strategic opportunities across a wide range of other applications, working with our international allies”.

The UK will hold the final say on any future sale of the satellite company and will also have the power to limit or block other countries’ access to services if it believes this would pose a national-security risk.

The acquisition will boost the UK’s advanced manufacturing industry, the government said, while ultimately supporting “the government’s plan to join the first rank of space nations”.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma added: This deal underlines the scale of Britain’s ambitions on the global stage. Our access to a global fleet of satellites has the potential to connect millions of people worldwide to broadband, many for the first time, and the deal presents the opportunity to further develop our strong advanced manufacturing base right here in the UK.”

 

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Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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