Regardless of how you feel about the government’s ideology, it is becoming clear that very little research is done when they put their policies into action. The most recent example of this, ‘Britconnect’. As soon as the starting gun had fired on this new initiative, the Government was wading from problem to problem. First. the Secretary of State for Business made the reckless claim that the Government would seek to nationalise OneWeb, integrating it into the United Kingdom’s Space Agency (UKSA), only to wind this commitment back, buying half of the company instead. Yet semantics and economic mistruths before Parliament are only half of the problem with Britconnect as, under the veneer of this fully automated luxury (space?) communism being offered by the government, there are real geopolitical and even technological hurdles that the government has so far failed to even acknowledge.
To begin with, is the issue of how we get these satellites into orbit. The Prime Minister has confirmed that there will be no funding for the launches to be carried out in the UK, implying that OneWeb (perhaps soon to be renamed as UKSA-web?) will be carrying on with its current launch regimen of launching its satellites using Russian Soyuz 2 rockets from sites on Russian territory. Perhaps this would not be that big of an issue if these were commercial satellites launched by a private entity, but the government themselves have confirmed that these satellites will effectively become the digital backbone of modern Britain and, more alarmingly the government also envisions these satellites being utilised for military purposes with the satellites being touted to have Public Regulated Service (PRS) capabilities akin to those of the Galileo network. In short, these satellites are supposed to be the single most important national security and foreign policy asset in the British arsenal, and yet the government seems all too comfortable outsourcing its launches to the Putin regime. and its allies.
Delivery aside, is it even possible to turn a swarm of small Low Orbit satellites into the veritable swiss army knife of Satellites?
The government is claiming that it is, but the experts seem to disagree. Even if all the fancy scientific systems were to be dropped from Britconnect and the government wished to have dual-use internet and navigation systems it is still going to be near impossible to do it. As Inside GNSS points out, navigation and internet satellites operate not only in different parts of the atmosphere, but also operate on different frequencies. They also lack the space to contain multiple atomic clocks, which are integral to having an accurate navigation system. This arguably kills the idea of turning the OneWeb constellation into a viable and independent GPS system as we would have to rebuild the British navigation infrastructure from scratch, something no Government or private entity is likely to do when working alternatives already exist.
This question perhaps pales into insignificance compared to the question of how you are going to fit a large array of other scientific, internet, and potentially military systems into a single hull. Moreover, how would you meet the power demands of such a large satellite when the Arrow satellite was designed with a much smaller and less power-hungry array of systems in mind? The Prime Minister has claimed that it is possible with minor adjustments and that UKSAC will devise a white paper to that effect, so it may be too early to pass judgment on this, yet on the surface, it seems to be about as plausible as the £60K plastic homes policy the Government churned out last week – another ill-conceived, and under-researched Government program. Even if they could do it, one has to wonder how much would such a sophisticated assortment of satellites cost the taxpayer?
The Starlink and Galileo project cost close to £10 billion each over multiple years, reaching over twenty times the purported cost of Britconnect, which again is supposed to do far more than either of those systems was ever supposed to do and is set to launch in less than a year. Starlink and Galileo used purpose-built satellites to achieve their capabilities, whereas Britconnect is supposed to be composed of retrofitted internet satellites requiring potentially billions more in unspecified R&D costs and fundamental changes in our current infrastructure. Perhaps then it would be more cost-effective to just launch a dedicated navigation network using proven and available technology and leave satellite internet networks to companies like SpaceX, which already can provide us with the same capability without forcing the taxpayer to dole out on a white elephant of a government project.
All in all, this program is not fully costed – and the one thing that will surely be skyrocketing is the cost to the taxpayer, not the latest satellite network,