Internet from space: Can the EU still catch up?

Constellations of thousands of satellites could supply the earth with high speed Internet. SpaceX and Amazon are already working to set up their own infrastructure in space. Now the European Union wants to get involved - with its own constellation. But German start-ups supplying satellite technology fear that the EU’s approach will be too slow and bureaucratic.

By Wolfgang Kerler

The article was first published in German. Click here to find the German version.

„The EU must finally wake up,“ says Bulent Altan in an interview with 1E9. He is the head of Mynaric, a company that develops laser technology which can transfer large amounts of data between satellites and ground stations. The Bavarian start-up thus provides an important building block for the huge satellite networks that will supply the planet with fast Internet in the future. But Bulent Altan sees an „urgent need for action“. He fears that Europe could fall behind in the development of the infrastructure. And he knows the industry like no one else. For years he worked as chief engineer of the satellite division of SpaceX. For Airbus he was Vice President.

„Europe is a technology leader. Just look at Jena Optronik, Isar Aerospace, Mynaric or many other successful space companies,“ he says. Many of the components needed to build satellite constellations come from Europe. „But Europe lacks entrepreneurs and an ecosystem that supports these entrepreneurs to put the individual pieces together to form ambitious systems“.

Does the EU Commission in Brussels see this problem? In any case, it now assumes that fiber optics and 5G transmission masts will not be enough to ensure EU-wide broadband Internet coverage for Europe. This was pointed out by Thierry Breton, the EU Commissioner for the Internal Market – one of the most important representatives of the European Commission. As early as mid-July, he said at the Hanover Messe Digital Days: „There is a global race for secure satellite communications infrastructure. Here too we can give Europe a leading position“. His vision: In five to seven years, the EU could have its own autonomous infrastructure.

The Federation of German Industry and Bremen-based space technology company OHB welcome these plans, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung recently reported. „Now Europe could catch up with projects such as Starlink and Oneweb,“ the newspaper quotes OHB CEO Marco Fuchs. Daniel Bock, CEO and co-founder of the Dresden-based start-up Morpheus Space, tells 1E9 that the EU has correctly recognized the global race „for one of the most important infrastructures of the future“. However, this recognition came „much too late“.

USA and China are interested in technology from Germany

„Those who control the communications infrastructure in space or can influence it on a large scale will secure global power and influence in the future,“ says Daniel Bock. "For this reason, the USA, China, Russia, Great Britain and India, to name only the most important, have already entered the race to control space. " Morpheus Space has developed compact and cost-effective ion propulsion systems for small satellites that are to be used to set up and control the constellations. So the start-up could definitely benefit from the newly emerging market - regardless of where the customers come from.

But the question of how long young companies and their technology will remain in Germany and Europe if the continent is a subordinate market for satellite constellations and for New Space in general is already being asked. Both the US and China are interested in German companies, there are even warnings of a sellout.

SpaceX, Oneweb and Amazon are already further

The most ambitious plans so far are pursued by SpaceX with its project Starlink. Elon Musk’s company wants to place 12,000 small satellites into the orbit. 600 of these are already in space and in the meantime - after investments in the three-digit million range - SpaceX can, according to its own statements, produce 120 new mini-satellites per month. Once the constellation is completed, it should be able to connect every corner of the earth to fast Internet.

Amazon is not quite ready with its Kuiper project, but has now received approval from the US authorities to build a constellation of 3,236 satellites. According to this, the first half of the satellites must be in a low-earth orbit by 2026, with time remaining until 2029 for the second half.

Because investors such as Softbank from Japan pulled back at the beginning of the Corona crisis, British company OneWeb had to file for bankruptcy in March. At that time, only 74 of the planned 648 satellites, which were ultimately to form a constellation for Internet supply, were in orbit. But the company was saved - by the British government, which is cut off from all EU satellite plans anyway because of Brexit. The United Kingdom is taking a stake in OneWeb for around 550 million euros

If the EU wants to take a leading role with its own project, there is little time left in the face of this competition. In the SZ, the communications director of the European Space Agency ESA, Magali Vaissière, now announced a study together with industry. By the end of February 2021, it should be clarified what the possible satellite network could look like and what competitive opportunities it would have. The ESA estimates the cost of the constellation at two to five billion euros.

Is the study „a waste of time“?

For Daniel Bock of Morpheus Space, the study does not bode well. „I don’t think much of it,“ he says. For him, it is an indication that the EU and ESA will maintain their „bureaucratic way“. If nothing changes, he does not believe that Europe can „compete internationally with agile new space companies like SpaceX, OneWeb or Amazon“.

Bulent Altan is even more critical of the plans. He believes that the EU must stop „prescribing future business models and monitoring their implementation“. „We are now seeing a global shift towards an entrepreneurially driven and venture capital-backed space sector that thinks commercially and acts profit- and market-driven. Europe should finally support exactly this. In this sense, it is a waste of time to conduct a study to find out whether and how a European satellite network could be built, while the rest of the world has already sent hundreds of satellites into space and will send many more by the time the study is completed“.

Daniel Bock sees the only chance for the EU in a cooperation with European space start-ups. Only these would bring the necessary agility and innovative strength. „The European new space companies must be involved from the very beginning and also be mainly charged with the implementation of the EU plans if you really mean it,“ he says – and warns: "Otherwise such a project will be doomed to failure due to enormous time delays, 10 times the costs and the general inefficiency.”

Bulent Altan’s demands point in a similar direction. Europe must itself become the „anchor customer“ of a European satellite constellation, purchase the corresponding services and pay for them in advance in some cases in order to make the construction possible. „It should be left to industry and start-ups to define the design and capabilities of such a satellite network,“ says Altan.

A functioning communications infrastructure in space is likely to play an important role in the future for German and European companies from various industries. These include the automotive industry, which is working on self-driving cars. After all, they will probably depend on a stable Internet connection. That this could be guaranteed with Internet from space was recently shown by a test which BMW carried out together with OneWeb. But the British government has secured access to OneWeb.

Picture: Getty Images

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