Satellite Internet: Europe has the technology to compete with Elon Musk

“While you are trying to colonize Mars, Russia is trying to occupy Ukraine! (…) We ask you to provide Ukraine with stations.” By this message on Twitter, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov arrested on February 26 Elon Musk, creator of the Starlink satellite Internet access service. “The terminals are coming,” the billionaire immediately replies.

Terminals? It is these parabolic antennas pointing to the sky that make it possible to connect to the Internet through space. After a cyberattack crippled part of its communications, kyiv turned to an American billionaire rather than Brussels to help restore them. Because the Old Continent does not yet have such a network but it intends to remedy it, and for this it has serious advantages.

On the one hand, it can rely on the expertise of its champions in the design of small satellites. The Globalstar and Iridium constellations in mobile telephony were made by Thales Alenia Space in the 2000s. And, more recently, Airbus produced aircraft for the British OneWeb project.

On the launcher side, Ariane 5 cannot yet compete with Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 rocket, whose prices, from 55 to 67 million dollars per flight, remain unbeatable. But its successor expected in 2023, Ariane 6, should be competitive. “The technological solutions are there, analyzes Pierre Lionnet, general manager of the Eurospace association. Now, there is no order book to fill with sufficient volumes to lower costs and the current project can provide that.”

Capital

Brussels is indeed working on Arianespace, Thales Alenia Space, Airbus Space and even Eutelsat as well as two other groups of start-ups, New Symphonie and UN:IO, to create a program combining public and private. Endowed with 6 billion euros, 2.4 billion of which will be provided by the European Union, it will run from 2022 to 2027. The war in Ukraine has brought down the last reservations and forced the 27 to ask themselves a question: what Is there a back-up solution in the event of a breakdown of terrestrial telecommunications networks during a conflict or a natural disaster?

The Russian threat to cut the transatlantic cables, this infrastructure essential to the operation of the Internet, has only amplified the urgency of having a plan B. Satellites offer an attractive and already proven alternative. Some households – nearly 10% in France and many more in other countries on the continent – ​​do not have access to ADSL or optical fiber due to geographical constraints, for example, and are therefore obliged to resort. Cruise ships, supertankers and even airliners also use this solution to offer services to their customers.

The great novelty comes from low-orbit constellations whose launch cost is much lower. Made up of hundreds or even thousands of smaller devices, they continue to function even if one of them fails. And they also promise higher speeds with a much faster response time.

This latency time is essential for the functioning of emergency services in theaters of operations but also for sensitive government communications (embassies) and, tomorrow, the autonomous car capable of reacting in an instant. Starlink has taken a step ahead with 1,300 machines placed at an altitude of less than 2,000 kilometers, and it already offers Internet access in 29 countries including France. But its prices remain high because the reception kit with the satellite dish costs 500 euros and the subscription nearly 100 euros per month.

For its part, Amazon with its Kuiper project promises to cut prices as it did in online commerce. The group has announced 83 launches over the next five years for 3,236 machines. “If we do nothing, our entire space industry is in great danger, underlines Pacôme Revillon, CEO of Euroconsult, a member company of New Symphonie, candidate for the creation of a European service. Amazon or Starlink produce themselves their machines and use their own reusable launchers to put them into orbit.”

It is out of the question to leave them this market. Especially since other countries are mobilizing. Russia with Sfera (sphere) and China with Guowang also want to have their constellation. No less than 226 projects are in the cards and, if all were to come out, the sky would be occupied by 52,000 spacecraft. Europe and its space agency (ESA) must therefore move quickly and choose, by the end of the year, a prime contractor from among the three contenders in the race.

Will we ever be able to make up for this delay? The example of Galileo pleads for optimism. This positioning system, which started well after the American GPS, is now used every day to orient oneself and move around by car or on foot. More than 2.5 billion objects connect to it, mainly smartphones, without anyone being aware of it. Since 2007, it has taken years for the European tortoise to finally catch up with the Yankee hare.

Airplanes, boats, trains, automobiles… all find their way around today thanks to this system which is based on 22 satellites, while waiting for a more efficient second generation to come. “Our service has been operational since 2016 and costs taxpayers 1 billion euros per year, explains Javier Benedicto, Director General of ESA. Like highways or bridges, it is public and free infrastructure, more efficient than the American GPS and with an accuracy of less than 1 meter.” Galileo generates, he estimates, 40 billion euros in economic benefits each year.

Its finesse is even greater for firefighters, ambulances or law enforcement. The GPS was created for the military and then offered in a degraded version to the civilian world. Conversely, Galileo, initially intended for civilians, will soon allow armies to guide their ground vehicles, their combat planes or their missiles. Today, members of NATO, of which France is a member, are still forced to use GPS. However, Washington has always indicated that it is ready to cut off this signal when it seems appropriate. For fear of becoming “blind”, major nations such as Russia with Glonass or China with Beidou have decided to deploy their own solution. Depending on the goodwill of Uncle Sam is out of the question. With Galileo, Europe already holds its destiny in its own hands.

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