The UK government is prepared to invest as much as £500 million in beleaguered satellite firm OneWeb as it seeks to create a global satellite navigation system after Brexit.
British firms have been excluded from the EU’s Galileo project, which is building a European alternative to the US Global Positioning System (GPS) and Russia’s GLONASS. However the development of a British venture from scratch would incur costs of several billion pounds.
The UK government is now prepared to provide funding for a private sector consortium for OneWeb with the belief that OneWeb’s low orbit satellites could be used to power an innovative navigation system.
OneWeb’s initial intention was to create a network of satellites that could provide connectivity to connect parts of the Earth where it is impossible or uneconomical to use traditional technologies such as fibre or cellular.
The company had hoped to gain first mover advantage, and believed the combination of its harmonised spectrum and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellation design would give it technological supremacy.
The venture secured billions in cash from high-profile investors, with a funding round last year raising $1.25 billion from the likes of Japanese giant Softbank, Qualcomm and the Government of Rwanda. So far, it has launched 74 satellites and built 44 ground stations and had hoped to launch a total of 650 with a view to a commercial launch in 2021.
OneWeb is headquarters are in the UK and the firm is regulated by Ofcom, however its management and manufacturing are largely American.
In March, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the US, claiming the coronavirus crisis has thwarted attempts to secure additional funding for a commercial launch. It laid off employees and has been seeking a buyer.
Bids are to be submitted later this week and amid interest from China and France, The FT says government adviser Dominic Cumming has convinced Prime Minister Boris Johnson to contribute the funds to a private sector consortium that could give the taxpayer a 20 per cent share in OneWeb.