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

Terminals? It is these satellite dishes that point to the sky that allow you to connect to the Internet through space. After a cyberattack paralyzed some of its communications, Kyiv turned to an American billionaire instead of Brussels to help restore them. Because the Old Continent does not yet have this network but it intends to remedy it, and that is why it has serious advantages.

On the one hand, you can rely on the experience of your champions in the design of small satellites. The constellations Globalstar and Iridium in mobile telephony were created by Thales Alenia Space in the 2000s. And more recently, Airbus produced aircraft for the British project OneWeb.

As for the launchers, the Ariane 5 cannot yet compete with Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 rocket, whose prices, between $ 55 million and $ 67 million per flight, remain unbeatable. But its planned successor in 2023, Ariane 6, should be competitive. “The technological solutions are there,” said Pierre Lionnet, director general of the Eurospace association.

Capital

In fact, Brussels is working on Arianespace, Thales Alenia Space, Airbus Space and even Eutelsat, as well as two other emerging business groups, New Symphonie and UN: IO, to create a program that combines public and private. Endowed with 6 billion euros, of which 2.4 billion will be provided by the European Union, it will last from 2022 to 2027. The war in Ukraine has overcome the latest reluctance and forced the 27 to ask a question: what is there? is your back -Solution in case of failure of the terrestrial telecommunication networks during a conflict or a natural disaster?

The Russian threat to cut off transatlantic cables, this essential infrastructure for the operation of the Internet, has only amplified the urgency of having a plan B. Satellites offer an attractive and proven alternative. Some households – about 10% in France and many more in other countries on the continent – do not have access to ADSL or fiber optics due to geographical limitations, for example, and are therefore required to travel. Cruisers, supertankers and even airliners also use this solution to provide services to their customers.

The big news comes from the low-orbit constellations, the cost of which is much lower. Made up of hundreds or even thousands of smaller devices, they still work 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 the lead with 1,300 machines located at less than 2,000 kilometers above sea level and already offers Internet access in 29 countries, including France. But their prices are still high because the reception kit with the satellite dish costs 500 euros and the subscription about 100 euros a month.

For its part, Amazon with its Kuiper project is committed to reducing prices as it did in online commerce. The group has announced 83 launches over the next five years for 3,236 machines. “If we do nothing, our entire space industry is in great danger,” said Pacôme Revillon, CEO of Euroconsult, a member company of New Symphonie, a candidate for the creation of a European service. Amazon or Starlink produce their own machines. and use their own reusable launchers to put them into orbit. “

It is beyond doubt to leave them this market. Especially because other countries are mobilizing. Russia with Sphere (sphere) and China with Guowang also want to have their constellation. There are no more and no less than 226 projects on the charts, and if they all came out, the sky would be occupied by 52,000 spaceships. Therefore, Europe and its space agency (ESA) must move quickly and choose, at the end of the year, a main contractor from among the three contestants.

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

Planes, ships, trains, cars … all of them are today thanks to this system that is based on 22 satellites, waiting for a more efficient second generation. “Our service has been operational since 2016 and costs taxpayers 1 billion euros a year,” said Javier Benedicto, ESA’s director general. the American GPS and with an accuracy of less than 1 meter “. Galileo generates, it estimates, 40 billion euros in economic benefits each year.

Its delicacy is even greater for firefighters, ambulances or law enforcement. The GPS was created for the military and then offered in a degraded version to the civilian world. By contrast, Galileo, initially intended for civilians, would soon allow armies to guide their ground vehicles, their fighter jets, or their missiles. Today, members of NATO, of which France is a member, are still forced to use GPS. However, Washington has always indicated that it is willing to cut off this signal when it seems appropriate. Fearing being “blind”, big nations like Russia with Glonass or China with Beidou have decided to deploy their own solution. It depends on the goodwill of Uncle Sam is beyond doubt. With Galileo, Europe already has its destiny in its own hands.

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