The more questions I am asking about why the Government spent $500m (or roughly £360m) of taxpayers money on buying part ownership of a US satellite company OneWeb, the less clear it becomes.
Following the thread of this particular web just leads to more questions, and a pervading sense that the Government itself isn’t really sure what the immediate plans are for its new acquisition.
Early reports in the media pitched the purchase of OneWeb as a means of plugging the gap that would be left after the UK no longer had access to the European Galileo system.
This idea – reportedly the brainchild of Dominic Cummings – was a cheaper solution than the previously trumpeted plans for a home-grown British GPS system.
This sort of GPS system plays a vital role in areas such as defence, but we know that OneWeb will play no part in matters of protecting the UK.
I heard this directly from Air Marshal Richard Knighton (MOD Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff – Finance and Military Capability) during a Public Accounts Committee hearing back in February [1]
Not only that but, regarding GPS, Space Policy expert Dr Bleddyn Bowen told the Guardian last year that OneWeb “currently operates a completely different type of satellite network from that typically used to run such navigation systems” [2]
To try and clear up what the plans for OneWeb are, I submitted some written questions to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) department.
The responses have informed me that the number of OneWeb staff based in the UK is currently 155 and that 55% of the company’s employees are now based in the UK in comparison to 24% in March 2020.
I am told that the company expects to have 300 employees in the UK by the end of the year, more than 60% of the company’s global workforce.
I have also tried to get to the bottom of what OneWeb is actually intended to be used for.
The Government’s own official announcement about the purchase of OneWeb said “the deal will enable the company to complete construction of a global satellite constellation that will provide enhanced broadband and other services to countries around the world.”[3]
But when pressed the language is disconcertingly vague.
The official response I received makes reference to data showing that “approximately 4% of UK households are unable to access broadband through other means” and then goes on to say “the broadband provided by OneWeb’s global network could provide a means by which these households can obtain internet connection in the future.”
But then adds: “However, it should be noted that the provision of rural broadband for UK customers was not the rationale for the Government’s investment in OneWeb.
“The OneWeb investment is a key step forward for the Government’s ambition for the UK to be a global pioneer in the research, development, manufacturing and exploitation of novel satellite technologies.”
There is no further clarification of what exactly that means.
It sounds like the Government still plans on using OneWeb to provide a home-grown satellite system of sorts, something I understand would not be possible without further investment.
An answer to the question about how much more Government money would be being invested into OneWeb in the coming years said that: “The Government do not propose to invest further in OneWeb” but rather that “the Government, together with other OneWeb shareholders, is engaged in discussions with a range of potential partners about future funding and bringing in additional shareholders.”
So how much more money will need to be put into this company in order to make it capable of whatever the Government hopes it will one day be capable of?
There are lot of unanswered questions here and certainly some rather ambiguous ambitions.
Shouldn’t we have a much clearer, much stronger idea of what’s going on given that the UK taxpayer has forked out $500m?




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