By Ken Wieland 21 February 2019
The UK Space Agency fuelled the 5G ambitions of OneWeb, a satellite broadband startup based in London, with funding to the tune of £18m. Through its OneWeb Sunrise programme, the startup aims to integrate its planned satellite constellation with upcoming 5G terrestrial networks.
“Thanks to this support, we will focus together on next‑generation technologies that will be game changers for realising global 5G connectivity,” remarked Adrian Steckel, OneWeb’s Chief Executive.
The funding provided by the UK Space Agency comes via its membership of the European Space Agency (ESA). The new £18m investment will go towards meeting what UK Science Minister Chris Skidmore described as the “significant technical challenges” of the Sunrise project. Skidmore ambitiously added that he wanted the UK at the “forefront of cutting-edge research and development”.
According to the UK Space Agency, investment will support “novel automation techniques and artificial intelligence” as a way to manage the proposed constellation of spacecraft and interaction with terrestrial networks.
Up in the air
This is a nervous time for OneWeb and its backers, which include UK entrepreneur Richard Branson. The company’s first batch of ten next-gen satellites – which have much more capacity than older models – is scheduled for launch on 26 February. According to OneWeb’s website, its constellation might scale up to as many as 900 satellites, although around 650 satellites is the immediate target.
The UK is among six ESA members in the OneWeb sunrise project, but is apparently the first to stump up cash for both phases of the programme. Phase one is analysis and design work, while phase two is building, launching and testing OneWeb Sunrise‑developed technologies. Other ESA members involved in Sunrise are France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland. Canada is also a programme participant, working as a “cooperating state” with ESA.
ESA’s Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems (ARTES) works too with Sunrise. An ESA division, ARTES funds programmes through public-private partnerships, but shells out no more than 50% of the funds needed.