Europe Wants Its Own Alternative to Musk’s Starlink Network

European nations want to build a 6 billion-euro ($7.3 billion) alternative to Elon Musk’s Starlink network so the region isn’t left behind in the race to develop satellite broadband.

European Union officials signed off on a study for a low-earth orbit constellation similar to Starlink that would offer secure government communications and bring internet service to isolated communities, French newspaper Les Echos reported, citing unnamed people in the bloc’s Commission.

Europe Wants Its Own Alternative to Musk’s Starlink Network

The EU could make an announcement about a satellite constellation on Thursday, a person familiar with the matter told Bloomberg, without giving further details.

Developing one would make Europe less dependent on Chinese and U.S. technology in what’s turning into a new space race in low-earth orbit. U.K.-based OneWeb is the nearest rival to Musk’s Starlink but that’s now drifting beyond the EU’s reach following Brexit.

The European Commission said in a statement to Bloomberg that the technical study for the system would start in the beginning of 2021 and the contract for the constellation is expected to be signed before the end of the year.

OneWeb’s owners, Indian billionaire Sunil Mittal and the British government, expect to be offering global broadband services within 18 months. Musk’s SpaceX has put up hundreds of Starlink satellites and is already testing the service with potential customers. China says it’s sent up communication satellites that use technology based on the laws of quantum physics to make them “hack-proof.”

That’s making it hard for the EU to remain a bystander, especially as the bloc is trying to champion “technological sovereignty” under its President Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s former defense minister. Building a broadband constellation would give it a homegrown capability in the same way that its Galileo geo-positioning system came to rival the U.S. military’s GPS.

Satellite broadband services already exist but they use geostationary satellites that orbit more than 22,200 miles from Earth. That makes the connections too slow to compete effectively with most terrestrial services. Low-earth orbit constellations are close enough to match the fastest fiber networks.

The new constellation would cost an estimated 6 billion euros, paid for by the European Union, a regional recovery fund and the companies, Les Echos said. The European Commission didn’t comment on the budget.

The project is being driven by EU Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton, a former French technology executive and finance minister, the paper said. The work could draw on existing European programs around government satellite communications and quantum technology. In a September speech, Breton alluded to the need for a European constellation “to give Europe access to the level of security offered by space-based quantum cryptology.”

European aerospace giant Airbus SE would lead a consortium to build the network alongside Thales Alenia Space, Germany’s OHB SE, satellite operators Eutelsat Communications SA and SES SA and space companies Telespazio and Arianespace, Les Echos added. Airbus declined to comment.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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