David Morris is Member of Parliament for Morecambe and Lunesdale.
In March, as Covid struck, OneWeb, a UK-based, Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Satellite system, found itself plunged into financial difficulties. Its backer, SoftBank, withdrew $2 billion of funding from the enterprise. The result, as many feared, was collapse and a retreat into US Chapter 11 protection.
But crisis soon turned into opportunity. With 74 satellites in space, and having secured valuable global spectrum priority and orbital rights, OneWeb was eyed by US, Canadian, European and Chinese buyers. Would the UK step up? It had been ejected from Galileo post-Brexit and risked being shut out from shaping the LEO satellite future if the Europeans stepped in. Europe wanted its own LEO and here was its chance.
The UK Space Agency was as lukewarm as a lost pizza in lockdown. It briefed and wrote letters disavowing the benefits of investing in OneWeb. But behind the scenes a wider assembly, including the Parliamentary Space Group, could see the bigger picture and the decades-long opportunity of owning a slice of space. In spite of the horrors of Covid, the challenge of budgets hit by £30 billion in bounce-back loans and the pressures of a national furlough, this Government found the courage and vision to look to the post-Brexit future.
The Treasury and others analysed and looked beyond short-termist naysayers. The Prime Minister took critical interest in how this addition to the UK Space industry could help unite our kingdom. Advisers recognised that in our connected future, for societal resilience, we needed to control our access to space.
At home we could connect the unconnected, add resilience to networks, back-up transport links, plan for the driverless car and level-up digital access across the UK. We could put connectivity where it’s needed – not just in our cities – as well as ensuring that subsequent generations of LEO Satellites are built here. Providing tech innovation is a good reason for post-grad young scientists to stay, and it allows universities to develop and experiment.
Most importantly, the UK would have a powerful satellite platform to share with our allies and friends post-Brexit – to balance US, Chinese and Russian systems.
The successful bid for OneWeb, in partnership with Bharti Global, operators of the massively successful Airtel Mobile network, will see each party inject $500 million into the venture for an 84.4 per cent share in the company. India is a leading space nation and we are delighted to work alongside such gifted friends. We are building a new future together.
The next launch will be in December and 36 satellites have been built and are ready to go. In just six months, after five launches, the UK and much of the Northern Hemisphere will have satellite service available.
By the close of 2022, OneWeb will span the globe, headquartered in the UK and serving society on land, sea and air. Work will be underway on a LEO resilient back-up to GPS satellites, called PNT (Position, Navigation, Timing) – saving the £5 billion previously sought by industry to build a Galileo rival, just as its resilience is compromised.
This project brings the Conservatives much closer to their vision of levelling-up – from the Heavens – and with success, a sky-high valuation will deliver for the UK taxpayer.