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Blow to OneWeb as UK government picks Starlink for satellite network

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Mountain rescue, historic monks, and a scout camp are among the beneficiaries of the UK government’s new satellite broadband trials.

The department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on Wednesday announced plans to see whether low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites represent a viable means of providing Internet connectivity to the most remote parts of the country. 12 sites have been identified for the trial, including a 12th Century abbey in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, a mountain rescue base in the Lake District, and a scout camp in Snowdonia.

“Ensuring everyone can get a quality Internet connection is crucial to our levelling up plans and these trials aim to find a solution to the prohibitively high cost of rolling out cables to far-flung locations,” said digital secretary Michelle Donelan, in a statement.

What’s more surprising than giving teenagers Internet access while they’re supposed to be experiencing a back-to-basics lifestyle is the choice of connectivity provider. After years of financially backing LEO operator OneWeb, DCMS has opted for SpaceX-owned Starlink instead.

The ministry said it went with Starlink due to the “readiness and availability of its technology”.

Indeed, Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell maintains a comprehensive record of satellite constellations on his charmingly old-fashioned Website. The list, which was updated on Wednesday, asserts there are currently 3,268 Starlink satellites in orbit, of which 2,930 are currently operational.

OneWeb’s constellation is much smaller by comparison. According to McDowell, it currently has 462 satellites in orbit, of which 373 are up and running. Its next launch is slated for next Tuesday from the Kennedy Space Centre, so it is about to get somewhat larger. OneWeb’s launch history shows that it usually deploys 36 satellites per batch. Presuming this one is no different, the constellation will soon tip the scales at 498.

Despite the yawning gap between their respective constellation sizes, OneWeb was deemed ready enough for both AT&T and BT this time last year. While DCMS hasn’t ruled out working with OneWeb in future, it’s an odd decision for the government to pass on the company that it rescued from bankruptcy with £400 million of taxpayers’ money.

Meanwhile, DCMS also announced it will provide more financial support to help cover the cost of connecting remote households and businesses to gigabit-capable broadband. Under its Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme, two or more eligible punters can submit a joint application for a voucher that will go towards paying for the installation. Until now, the maximum available was £1,500 for homes and £3,500 for businesses. DCMS on Wednesday said that from next year, that figure will increase to £4,500 for homes and businesses alike.

In order to qualify, applicants must live in a rural area where the maximum available connection speed is less than 100 Mbps. They must also live in an area where there are currently no plans – by either the private sector or government – to improve connectivity. For businesses, they must have fewer than 250 employees and turnover less than £36 million a year.

In addition, DCMS also awarded its biggest single rural connectivity contract to date. As part of its £5 billion Project Gigabit scheme, it has bunged £108 million to Northern Ireland-based Fibrus which will use the funds to connect 60,000 premises in Cumbria to gigabit-capable networks. Construction is due to begin immediately, with the first areas coming online next spring.

 

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One comment

  1. Avatar Martin Winlow 13/01/2023 @ 5:48 pm

    What on earth are they on about? Just ask any one of the thousands of UK users of Starlink if ‘it works’!!! (Yes, it does, even in the Hebrides – and quite why tens of millions are being spent putting a fibre cable under the sea to our particular island – to service a mere 40 permanently occupied homes rather than just give us all a Starlink terminal and subsidised account (at about 1/1000th the cost over 20 years) – is another question.

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