This week, the US-based space news portal SpaceNews, which has recently merged with its Canadian counterpart, SpaceQ, published some interesting insights from George Freeman, UK’s Minister of State for Science, Research and Innovation. What Freeman said was entirely antithetical to the notion of Brexit. As is known, the UK has substantial stakes in the satellite internet company OneWeb – so does India’s Bharti Global – and the company was recently merged with French satcom giant Eutelsat. Now that OneWeb is a British-French company now known as OneWeb-Eutelsat, Freeman suggests that this new firm can join hands with the European Union, as the latter plans to have its independent IRIS2 satellite constellation. Freeman raises an important question: “Does security mean that you have to have your own constellation (or can you) have your own protected, encrypted bandwidth comms platform on shared spectrum?”
Freeman’s statement coaxes the French government to abide by the growing European ethos of space sustainability, which Paris has insisted on for a few years through the Net Zero Space initiative of the Paris Peace Forum, which Eutelsat and the French space agency, CNES, has been a member of. Freeman also expressed the UK’s intent to be part of the supply chain when OneWeb-Eutelsat begin assembling its second-generation satellites in France and Germany.
The UK and the European Union face common challenges, including losing autonomy over space sector innovation. There certainly is no going back after Brexit, but it is somehow being communicated that the split is no divorce but a rearrangement of its relations with the EU. OneWeb’s first-generation satellites were launched from Russia before the Ukraine War and after that from the US and India. OneWeb’s first-generation satellites were constructed in Airbus’ Florida facility, not mainland Europe. OneWeb’s majority of investors are Asian – India’s Bharati Global, followed by Japan’s SoftBank and South Korea’s Hanwha – constituting nearly 38%. Europe and the UK cannot undo the investments from non-European entities, nor can they quickly realise a space launcher; they can indeed realise building space systems in Europe and partner together with the fast-emerging markets.
So, while Luxembourgish SES builds satellites that are to be used by downstream telecom players like India’s Jio, while OneWeb-Eutelsat builds its first-in-India ground station in India’s town of Mehsana, India is fast becoming a strategic partner of the European space industry. Likewise, the first OneWeb-Eutelsat ground station in the MENA region is in Saudi Arabia’s Tabak, close to NEOM City. The global satcom market will grow more than 145% over the next ten years, according to a US-based market research firm, FactMR. The fastest growth is likely to be seen along the India-Middle-East-Europe Corridor. Therefore, European space companies will likely see tremendous investments and business coming in from Saudi Arabia, UAE, and India – the key stakeholders of the Corridor. The footprint of the space segment of this corridor will expand over the skies of southern Asia, West Asia and North Africa.
It is in London’s interest to rekindle a post-Brexit partnership with Brussels, and 2023 was a year to do so. The UK is resuming the Horizon Europe research program and the Copernicus Earth-Observation program that it had lost due to Brexit. On the technology financing front, since Brexit, the City of London lost access to the EU Single Market. UK-based clearing houses now seek access to the EU’s lucrative derivative markets from Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam post-2025. Likewise, the City of London is also seeking permission from the Reserve Bank of India to set up its shop as an offshore qualified central counterparty to make hay from the growing derivatives activities in India.
One thing is for sure: despite the various impediments constructed through conflicts, all the stakeholders of the India-Middle-East-Europe corridor are on the same page. They are rooting for peace, progress and stability in this trans-continental region and, to that end, create a bulwark to secure this mega project. Satcom last-mile connectivity is an essential socio-economic undertaking of this corridor – it will bridge the digital divide and yet at the same time will create numerous digital economy opportunities. Given the immensely committed national leadership of the IMEC countries, investors in IMEC are confident of seeking returns. India’s space-PSU – the New Space India Limited – is making in-roads into GIFT City. Big Indian technology companies, including those looking to enter the global space sector, will soon be able to directly list on foreign exchanges at the International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) in GIFT City. The European space industry would benefit from IMEC and resurrect from its falling fortunes in the past few years. The UK space sector would not want to be left alone in the IMEC-led opportunities and this is getting reflected from Freeman’s statements.