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EU pitches broadband satellite plan

The European Commission wants to build a €6 billion satellite system that can provide broadband internet communications and also help keep Europe’s diplomatic and intelligence communications secure.

“It will be designed [to] improve connections on the European Continent,” Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said on Tuesday, adding that just 56 percent of households in Europe have access to high-speed broadband.

The plan splices together the bloc’s defense policy ambitions with its broader economic agenda on boosting strategic autonomy by offering an alternative to Starlink, a commercial internet network developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and the U.K.’s OneWeb constellation.

“[Our project] represents what we need to be doing as a Continent which is increasingly aware of its geopolitical responsibilities,” said Breton.

Development could start next year with first service and quantum cryptography testing by 2025. The entire constellation could be ready for use by 2028, the French commissioner said. The plan is now subject to discussions by EU countries and in the European Parliament.

If approved, it would be the bloc’s third satellite program after Galileo, the world’s most accurate geo-navigation network, and Copernicus, a leading Earth-observation constellation used for mapping services and monitoring climate change.

Europe’s aerospace industry has repeatedly demanded a third EU space program that would boost the pipeline of research and development contracts, while also ensuring a steady stream of rocket launch deals.

Though the exact format of the system still has to be worked out, it will need hundreds of small satellites in low Earth orbit allowing coverage of both Europe and Africa.

The network also aims to offer a response to a series of cyberattacks against foreign ministries and diplomatic services in past years — many of which were linked to Russian hackers. The Commission drafted a new Cybersecurity Strategy in 2020, and is working on new rules for EU institutions to better protect themselves from such hacks.

The new space communications network would help the EU and its member governments better protect their diplomatic and confidential data by using next-generation “quantum encryption” designed to keep information secure from advanced code-breaking computers.

Breton said he’s sourcing €2.4 billion from EU funding pools under his control such as the Digital Europe program and the European Defense Fund. Industry will kick in about €2 billion and member countries will be tapped for a similar amount. The European Space Agency — a non-EU institution with overlapping membership that helps manage Galileo and Copernicus — will also help finance the initiative.

Breton said he will meet space ministers in Toulouse on Wednesday to drum up support for the plan.

But there is some pushback to the initiative.

Niklas Nienaß, a German Green MEP focusing on space issues, complained it focuses too heavily on applications for spy agencies and governments, rather than providing reliable, high-quality internet for all.

“The selling point is not that [French President Emmanuel] Macron and [German Chancellor Olaf] Scholz can have a private conversation over satellite phone,” said Nienaß. “It’s that we all get a benefit.”

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