U.K. launches first satellites with new space partner India

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Sunil Bharti Mittal chairman and chief executive officer of Bharti Enterprises Ltd., during a panel session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 22, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Jason Alden.

Britain’s post-Brexit space ambitions took flight on Friday with the launch of 36 satellites for the partly state-owned OneWeb network that’s competing with Elon Musk to offer broadband internet from space.

The launch from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia is the first for OneWeb since the U.K. bailed out the startup with the help of Indian billionaire Sunil Mittal. Their $1 billion investment gives the two partners a stake in one of the hottest, and riskiest, areas of space investment — low-earth orbit communications.

In an interview, Mittal said it signals a new space partnership between the U.K. and India. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose government pushed through the investment despite reservations from senior civil servants, is due to visit New Delhi next month to seek a post-Brexit trade deal with India.

“I know a lot of close co-operation is expected between the two nations, especially with the U.K. coming out of its EU restrictions, or shackles,” Mittal told Bloomberg News. “This will be the first time when the U.K. will be able to speak to India on a new trade deal, new co-operation, intelligence-sharing.”

The investment in July by Mittal’s Bharti Enterprises and the U.K. is a precarious one. No low-earth orbit broadband network has ever turned a profit and the ground-based terminals are complex and costly.

OneWeb will now have 110 satellites in space on the way to a target of 648, and aims to offer commercial services by mid-2022. Musk has sent up almost 1,000 Starlinks and is testing the service with potential customers.

Mittal said he expects OneWeb to be close to profitability after 24 months and there is interest from industrial partners, other satellite operators and financial investors to plug a $1.5 billion funding gap as soon as January. He said he’d prefer them to buy equity but is open to government-backed credit financing and is ready to put in more of his own money.

“New announcements should be coming in the next four or five weeks” on a deal which could cut the funding shortfall to between $750 million and $1 billion, Mittal said. “And then we are in conversations with three or four other interested parties.”

He wants Indian space agency ISRO to launch at least one batch of OneWeb satellites, and said the agency’s commercial arm NSIL could help to manufacture the network’s low-cost ground terminals.

OneWeb is planning a second generation of satellites that may include upgraded technology such as GPS-like positioning. That second phase will need an additional $2 billion to $2.5 billion of capital in two to three years’ time, Mittal said.

He expects his son Shravin to take a lead on Bharti’s OneWeb involvement by then. Their board roles at OneWeb mark the first time that Sunil has worked directly with his son.

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