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UK Government Makes Significant Investment in Satellite Technologies Through OneWeb Acquisition

August 07, 2020 by Lianne Frith

The distressed global communication firm OneWeb has recently been saved from bankruptcy by a UK government-led consortium. The investment will see the UK take a significant equity share in OneWeb, whose headquarters are already based in the United Kingdom.

The company has some big goals to provide internet services to everyone everywhere. With a considerable stake in the company, the UK hopes to ride along with OneWeb to become a leader in space research and development. 


What Was OneWeb Working On?

Before OneWeb went into administration, it launched the satellite constellation, namely a planned network of over 650 low-Earth orbit satellites. The low-altitude satellites would beam internet connectivity to ground terminals on the Earth’s surface. By March 2020, it had launched 74 of the planned 648 satellites for the year. OneWeb was one of several companies working on an internet-from-space project, with the aim to provide global services by 2021. 


A banner that shows OneWeb Satellites logo. In front of it stands one of the company’s constellation satellites.

A banner that shows OneWeb Satellites logo. In front of it stands one of the company’s constellation satellites. Image Credit: Picryl.


Why is the UK Investing in Space Tech?

The space industry not only provides an incredible opportunity for engineers to push the boundaries of human knowledge: it is also a significant income generator. Space plays a pivotal role in the UK’s Industrial Strategy—promoting its global nature and ensuring national security. Income for the sector has been steadily growing, and as of the start of 2019, it stood at £14.8 billion. One of the biggest areas of growth is space manufacturing, especially the development and building of satellites, ground systems, and components.

The UK has big ambitions to grow its share of the global Space Sector further and to expand upon its strong manufacturing foundations. With a goal of capturing 10% of the global market by 2030, the space sector is set to outperform the whole of the economy. The investment of around $500 million in OneWeb is intended to be another step towards its goal.


A model of a OneWeb satellite that is designed to provide global internet connectivity.

A model of a OneWeb satellite that is designed to provide global internet connectivity. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.


How Will the Acquisition Help the UK? 

The UK’s acquisition of OneWeb has several key aims, such as the below:

  • Join the first rank of space nations—the UK government has a particular focus on becoming a world leader in space research and development. Its acquisition of OneWeb means another step closer to that goal, which will help it stand up against other world powers like the U.S.

  • Develop a manufacturing base—once the acquisition is finalised, OneWeb will scale up its existing operations and could relocate additional manufacturing capacity back to the UK.

  • Replace satellite resource—the UK needs to replace its lost access to the EU’s satellite system due to Brexit. Now, the country can take advantage of OneWeb’s plans to build out its broadband internet satellite network, and it could also use the constellation for positioning, navigation, and timing services.

The acquisition will sit perfectly alongside the UK’s other plans, namely developing its own native launch capabilities. Once the UK has spaceports for both vertical and horizontal takeoff, companies will be able to establish launch capabilities from UK soil. What’s more, at that point, OneWeb’s constellation will become much more accessible as a domestic resource.


Could the Deal do Damage?

There has been some controversy over OneWeb’s plans to launch satellites into low-Earth orbit because the technology’s reflections could distort the observations of ground-based telescopes. This would be a real problem for astronomy, impacting big projects such as the 8-metre Vera C. Rubin Observatory, which is under construction in Chile. Nevertheless, the UK now has an opportunity to work more closely with the scientific community, having ensured that OneWeb becomes a good global partner.

Ultimately, the deal is still subject to U.S. regulatory approval, but it is expected to close before the end of the year. If the UK manages the investment in the right way, it may well have an inexpensive way to leverage planned in-space assets for multiple purposes.

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