Brussels has opened the door to investing in OneWeb, the UK taxpayer-backed satellite broadband company, raising the prospect of a tie-up between Britain and the EU against Elon Musk’s Starlink system.
The European Commission has asked industry players and individuals to weigh in on the merits of backing a non-EU satellite provider as the bloc seeks to avoid being left behind in a global internet space race. Brussels has spent millions putting together proposals to build its own constellation of internet satellites but has made slow progress.
An impact assessment lists buying a “minority stake in one of the non-EU constellations being built” among the possible options to prevent Europe falling behind Britain, the US, China and Russia in satellite broadband.
The Government last year bought a $500m (£362m) stake in OneWeb as part of a $1bn rescue deal. The company is competing against Starlink, owned by Mr Musk’s SpaceX, and Amazon’s forthcoming Kuiper system in building constellations that blanket the Earth in internet signal, serving isolated areas.
The EU document does not identify OneWeb as a potential destination for investment but would be seen as the most likely option, with Canada’s Telesat among its other rivals.
Eutelsat, the Paris-based satellite company backed by the French state, invested in OneWeb earlier this year, while Sunil Mittal, OneWeb’s executive chairman, has lobbied Brussels, offering to collaborate.
Airbus, the European aerospace giant, also has a 50pc stake in OneWeb’s satellite manufacturing operation, while the internet company also uses spectrum licensed by France’s communications regulator.
Josef Aschbacher, the head of the European Space Agency, of which the UK remains a member, appeared to express support for greater collaboration last week. He said: “The UK has some assets in OneWeb and that is something I would like to make good use of for secure connectivity.
“OneWeb is certainly an important aspect for me in this element where different building blocks will play a role.”