OneWeb: A space system waiting in the sky

17 July 2020

Zainab Ganiwalla

Since Brexit, which seems like millennia ago, the UK has found itself disbarred from participating in the EU’s Galileo project. In response, the UK has decided to take a driving seat in piloting the future – a £500 million seat to be precise – by investing in the US satellite company OneWeb. So what does this mean for the UK, and how will we be positioned in the race for the space network? 

The original plan for the UK was to develop its own rival system, yet when the time came for the numbers to be crunched, the £5billion price tag was enough to convince the government to abandon the creation of its own independent space system. Instead, a bid for one-fifth of a bankrupt US space firm has revealed itself to be the answer to all our problems. 

It goes without saying that there are those who feel that this controversial bid for a failed satellite internet provider is a risky gamble by the British government, especially since OneWeb went into US bankruptcy protection in March after failing to secure $2bn from its biggest shareholder, SoftBank. As Peggy Hollinger reports in the  Financial Times, the decision to bid for a bankrupt company signals a radically different approach to industrial policy and the space sector. The bid is driven as much by departmental squabbling over who would finance an alternative to the Galileo project as by recognition that there is little demand for a fifth traditional satellite platform in mid-earth orbit. Perhaps the Financial Times’ justification for its severe critique of the UK government’s decision stems from the fact that the decision was taken against the advice of its own space agency. Similarly Alex Hern, reporting for The Guardian a few weeks ago, focused on the experts who labelled the bid as ‘nonsensical’. OneWeb’s systems are described as ‘unproven technology’ in the UK’s risky technology and business gamble. The sheer number of officials who were quick to voice their disapproval is highlighted; The Financial Times and The Guardian have given the ardent voices a suitable platform.

In other publications, the media narratives surrounding the UK’s bid for OneWeb seem more moderate than the harsh critique by the Financial Times. Matthew Field in The Daily Telegraph, for example, seems cautiously optimistic over the success in the UK’s bid, tipping Chancellor Rishi Sunak as the leader of the newly-formed National Space Council. The government is portrayed as the saviour of OneWeb, rescuing the failed company from bankruptcy. In an attempt to be at least somewhat unbiased in its pro-Governmental stance, The Telegraph does mention that there are some questions over how well OneWeb’s technology will work for satellite navigation plans. However it is clear that The Telegraph, along with the UK government, are champions of the OneWeb deal.

In a neutral stance, The BBC highlighted both the positives and negatives of the decision, stating the benefits this deal will bring to the UK whilst also hinting towards the ‘raised eyebrows in the wider space sector”.

Just last week, on July 10th, it was announced that the UK had successfully won the bid for OneWeb, bringing with it a flurry of commentary from all sides of the media spectrum. Whilst The Times congratulated the government on securing the deal, they couldn’t help but bring notice to the ‘hastily consummated deal, subject to minimal parliamentary scrutiny’, making it very clear that it was the British taxpayer who really rescued OneWeb. One expert even told The Daily Express the OneWeb systems ‘are not a solution to the lack of access to Galileo’ and issued a hard warning; if OneWeb goes bust and abandons its hardware in space, the UK will be responsible for the debris. It appears that, despite the win, many critics are still wary of the effects this deal will have on the UK’s reputation and economy in the attempt to build a rival system at a huge cost which is simply unaffordable. 

Despite a scathing article in the run up to the announcement, Peggy Hollinger at The Financial Times was surprisingly subdued in her report following the UK’s successful bid. The article looks at the benefits of the new systems and how it can improve technology and communications in the UK, mentioning briefly that there are still several hurdles but remaining cautiously optimistic in tone. 

It appears that the UK media is still undecided on whether or not this will be a success, and it is clear that a very close eye will be kept on the status of OneWeb, the UK’s new space system. Watch this space.