Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak have agreed to the purchase of a 20 percent stake in satellite operator OneWeb after the UK was left unable to access the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system because of Brexit. The Prime Minister has agreed “to put up about £500 million” of taxpayer money for the purchase as part of a larger private sector consortium bid.
According to the Financial Times Mr Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings was “instrumental” in pushing for the UK’s involvement in the bid as the Government seeks a system that will support mobile phones and provide vital location information for the military and businesses.
OneWeb filed for bankruptcy in March in the US, where most of its operations are located, after failing to secure new funding.
Its headquarters are in west London and it has 74 satellites in orbit along with plans for hundreds more.
Previously, the UK aimed to build its own global navigation satellite system, at a cost estimated by independent experts of between £3bn and £5bn.
Then-prime minister Theresa May said in December 2018 that Britain expected to work with the US and other “Five Eyes” partners.
Downing Street would not comment on the reported negotiations to buy a stake in OneWeb.
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A Number 10 spokesman said the UK was continuing to develop a sovereign space programme through the national space strategy.
The spokesman said: “Work on that is continuing on multiple fronts.
“This includes developing plans for our own national capabilities in satellite navigation, positioning and timing.
“We continue to work and have regular conversations with the space industry about this.”
OneWeb was founded in 2012 with the objective of blanketing the earth in low-orbit satellites for the internet, connecting billions who lacked a mobile connection.
But the project collapsed into administration after raising £2.43bn from investors including Japan’s SoftBank.
SoftBank pulled out of a deal into the expensive project at the last minute hours after OneWeb launched its rockets from Kazakhstan.
Acquiring such a satellite network would be a coup for Mr Johnson but industry insiders have questioned whether the satellites could be easily modified for GPS use.
While OneWeb could not be a full alternative to a GPS network, since its satellites are not equipped with high-tech Atomic Clocks, it could serve as a reserve network.
The US has been looking for ways to reinforce its GPS network, first launched more than 40 years ago, for years, as advanced jamming technologies make the network less reliable.
OneWeb’s technology – which orbits many miles lower than GPS, making it a so-called low-earth orbit (LEO) constellation – could be used as a way to verify regular GPS, according to one theory.