Technology Space: Europe to launch its own satellite internet network to compete with Elon Musk

Space: Europe to launch its own satellite internet network to compete with Elon Musk

To each his own constellation! The European Union also wants to get into broadband internet via satellite. European Commissioner Thierry Breton will defend this project on Wednesday February 16 at the European Space Summit being held in Toulouse. The idea is to offer an alternative to private networks like Elon Musk’s Starlink.

The ambitious American acts as a precursor in this area. It has already sent nearly 2,000 satellites into orbit to offer everyone a very high-speed connection from space. Subscriptions have been available for a few months in France. Something to put a smile on Dominique’s face, who lives in an area poorly covered by other networks in the Alpes-Maritimes: “I am teleworking and impossible to make videos, Teams or Zoom with the speed I had. So I had to connect to 4G and go look in a corner of my house where I had the best 4G reception.”

“We are promised fiber from the years 2017-2018, we are in 2022, it is still not there.”

Dominica, Starlink subscriber

at franceinfo

Dominique was therefore one of the first French people to subscribe to the Starlink network, in September 2021. Base price: 99 euros per month plus around 500 euros of investment for the equipment and its sending, in a beautiful designer box. “Inside, explains Dominic, you find a satellite, you just have to take it out. It’s plugged in, it’s connected, and you plug it into an outlet. Then you download an app. It will connect directly to your Starlink. Forty five seconds later your satellite is fixed and you have 150 mega. That’s it, miraculous.” The Starlink network represents at least one drawback: as the constellation is not yet complete, there are sharp cuts from time to time, while the antenna on the ground recovers the signal.

For the moment, Elon Musk’s network has no equivalent in France. Some French access providers like Orange do offer subscriptions via satellites, but this requires a fairly slow network, a few satellites, with a limited speed. Why ? The difference is the altitude at which these satellites are located. Existing networks use very large machines that are several thousand kilometers from the Earth. The new constellations are made up of groups of small satellites that revolve around 500 kilometers above our heads. Less far, more numerous, this reduces the latency time and allows the transfer of a lot of data. In short, it is 21st century telecommunications available everywhere on the planet.

Europe therefore wants to launch its own constellation of satellites with one main objective: to be independent of Starlink and other private networks in order to ensure the sovereignty and security of telecommunications for the inhabitants and institutions of the Union. The philosophy is the same as for Galileo, the positioning system launched by the EU in the early 2000s to no longer depend on American GPS data. According to Clément Galic, director of Unseenlabs, a Rennes start-up commissioned by the European Commission to work with others on this constellation project, “we don’t have a sovereign secure telecommunications solution in Europe.”

“Europe is dependent both on the network of submarine cables and in space, there is nothing European. So we are dependent today on the United States. And potentially, we can lose our telecoms if we cut the right submarine cables at the right time.”

Clement Galic

at franceinfo

Clement Galic alert: “We can have major telecom concerns in Europe. Even geopolitically, whether it’s cyberattacks, disinformation, etc., it’s based on intelligence, listening and the manipulation of communication technologies.” The boss of Unseenlabs gives the example of the Whatsapp messenger on which we carry out the interview. “We are not going to lie to each other, there are certain States, if they want, they listen to our conversation. It is a real issue. We will master the pipes on which we will talk.”

It remains to be seen how much this constellation will cost. No precise figure for the moment. Several billion euros, maybe more. European Commissioner Thierry Breton hopes in any case for a first rapid deployment, by 2024.

At the same time, Europe is trying to organize this new conquest of space. Because the competition is already tough: Starlink and its more than 40,000 potential satellites, Kuiper, Jeff Bezos’ network – we are talking about at least 3,000 satellites in total – whose first launches are planned for the end of the year. There are also the Russians, the Chinese – 13,000 satellites announced – or the Oneweb network, of which the French Eutelsat and Airbus are partners and which is currently being deployed.

That’s potentially tens of thousands of satellites above our heads. This is more than the total of all the machines sent since the beginning of the space conquest, in 1957. Is there a risk of traffic jams or even pileups? Christophe Bonnal, expert at CNES, the national center for space studies, is rather reassuring: “The key point in there is not too many, it’s their effectiveness in avoiding collisions. If they are all there in a completely erratic way, it is finished immediately. On the other hand, as long that they have a very high and very effective control of their trajectory and of the risk of collision, there are not too many problems.”

“It’s like a busy crossroads in Paris, where you have lots of cars. As long as it’s going well from the point of view of the constellations, we’re talking about 30,000 satellites by 2030, quite frankly, it’s playable .”

Christophe Bonnal, CNES expert

at franceinfo

For now, those who complain the most about these constellations are professional astronomers whose observations from Earth are disturbed by these thousands of satellites already very visible in the sky.

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