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 that you provide stations to Ukraine.” In this message on Twitter, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov arrested on February 26 Elon Musk, creator of the Starlink satellite Internet access service. “Terminals are coming,” the billionaire immediately replies.

terminals? It is these satellite dishes pointing to the sky that make it possible to connect to the Internet through space. After a cyberattack crippled some of his communications, Kyiv turned to an American billionaire instead of Brussels to help restore them. Because the Old Continent still doesn’t have this network, but it intends to remedy it, and for that it has serious advantages.

On the one hand, it can count on the experience 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 has produced aircraft for the British OneWeb project.

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Arianespace Wins Giant Contract With Amazon, Praises ‘Exceptional Opportunity’ for Ariane 6

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

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

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

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Successful launch of the first “flexible” European satellite

The big news comes from the low-orbit constellations whose launch cost is much lower. Comprised of hundreds or even thousands of smaller devices, they keep working 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 operation 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 forward with 1,300 machines installed at less than 2,000 kilometers altitude and already offers Internet access in 29 countries, including France. But its prices are still high because the reception kit with the satellite dish costs 500 euros and the subscription almost 100 euros per month.

In turn, Amazon with its Kuiper project promises to reduce prices as it did in online commerce. The group announced 83 launches over the next five years for 3,236 machines. “If we do nothing, our entire space industry will be in great danger”, underlines Pacôme Revillon, CEO of Euroconsult, a member company of the New Symphony, a candidate for the creation of a European service. reusable launchers to get them into orbit.”

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Space, the next battleground of the great powers

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

Will we ever be able to make up for this delay? Galileo’s example calls for optimism. This positioning system, which began well after the American GPS, is now used every day to orient and get around by car or on foot. More than 2.5 billion objects connect to it, mostly smartphones, without anyone noticing. Since 2007, it has taken years for the European tortoise to finally catch up with the Yankee hare.

Planes, boats, trains, cars… they all move today thanks to this system that is based on 22 satellites, while they await the arrival of a more efficient second generation. “Our service has been operational since 2016 and costs taxpayers 1 billion euros a year”, explains Javier Benedicto, Director General of ESA. Like highways or bridges, it’s free public infrastructure, more efficient than US GPS and accurate to less than 1 meter.” Galileo generates, he estimates, 40 billion euros in economic benefits each year.

Its subtlety is even greater for firefighters, ambulances or police officers. GPS was created for the military and then offered in a degraded version to the civilian world. On the other hand, Galileo, initially aimed at civilians, will soon allow armies to guide their ground vehicles, their fighter planes or their missiles. Today, members of NATO, of which France is a member, are still required to use GPS. However, Washington has always indicated that it is ready to cut that signal when it seems appropriate. For fear of becoming “blind”, big nations like Russia with Glonass or China with Beidou decided to implement their own solution. Relying on Uncle Sam’s goodwill is out of the question. With Galileo, Europe already has its destiny in its own hands.

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