UK wins bidding war for satellite firm OneWeb

Linda J. Dodson

The UK’s bid to buy satellite operator OneWeb has won at an auction in New York, The Telegraph can reveal.

Britain was bidding for OneWeb, which hopes to build a rival to GPS and the EU’s Galileo, with backing from Indian telecoms billionaire Sunil Mittal’s Bharti Enterprises.

The UK bid won last night and an announcement could come as soon as midday, sources said. 

If it gains US regulatory approval next week, it will give the UK a 20pc stake in the company along with a consortium of other private investors.

The government has promised £500m in equity OneWeb, which went bankrupt in March after its biggest investors, including SoftBank, pulled out amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The UK is in the process of securing additional financing to revive the business, which was planning to launch up to 650 satellites. Britain’s consortium is understood to be in talks with a UAE fund and Japan’s SoftBank.

The bid came after the intervention of Number 10 last week. Entered at the last minute, it was signed off by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and backed by Chancellor Rishi Sunak and aide Dominic Cummings.

OneWeb, founded in 2012, has attracted billions of dollars for its plans to launch a constellation of hundreds of satellites that would bring internet connectivity to the most remote corners of the world, but saw its plans grind to a halt after funding dried up. 

The Government is believed to be interested in the project both as a way of boosting rural broadband coverage and to launch a satellite navigation system that would rival the EU’s Galileo project and the US’s GPS.

UK Space Agency officials told the Government last week that investing in OneWeb to build a rival to the EU’s Galileo system could ultimately prove to be a failed endeavour as the firm’s system is unable to provide accurate location signals, they claimed.

OneWeb’s satellites currently orbit at around 1,200km, compared to over 20,000km and up for US GPS and the EU’s Galileo system. UK Space Agency officials said that OneWeb’s system would require more satellites than the GPS system to cover the same ground and would require more ground monitoring stations.

The company’s manufacturing presence in Florida means the US committee on foreign investment in the United States has a veto on any deal involving a foreign buyer.

OneWeb declined to comment. The Government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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