Bharti Enterprises, one of the world’s biggest telecom service providers, has emerged as a key private investor in the UK-backed consortium bidding for the collapsed satellite operator OneWeb.
The Indian group, which is controlled by its billionaire founder Sunil Bharti Mittal, is one of several private investors in the consortium, according to people close to the talks. Bharti invested in OneWeb in 2015, along with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, Qualcomm and Airbus.
The UK government last week pledged roughly £500m of taxpayers’ money to bid for OneWeb, which collapsed in March after its biggest shareholder SoftBank pulled out of discussions on a $2bn financing round. Other bidders are from China and Canada and the final decision is expected on Thursday, according to people involved in the talks.
Should the bid succeed, the UK expects to secure a golden share giving it power over any future sale and allowing it a say over who could access the satellite operator’s platform, according to one person close to the subject.
Founded in 2012 by serial satellite entrepreneur Greg Wyler, OneWeb originally proposed a mega-constellation of more than 600 satellites in low earth orbit to deliver affordable wireless internet services to anywhere in the world.
Bharti’s Airtel group had the rights to distribute OneWeb internet services in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Africa after its 2015 investment.
However, since it collapsed, OneWeb has been proposing new services in a bid to attract new investors, including positioning, navigation and timing services for critical national infrastructure and autonomous vehicles. Traditionally, navigation services are delivered from larger satellites operating at significantly higher altitudes than OneWeb’s proposed constellation.
Prime minister Boris Johnson’s decision to back a OneWeb bid came despite opposition from the UK Space Agency, which since 2018 has been working on delivering more traditional global navigation satellite services after Britain was excluded from the EU’s Galileo programme due to Brexit.
However, the government has been forced to scale back its plans after costs spiralled from £3bn-£4bn to £5bn. No department has been prepared to foot the bill, according to several people close to the subject. Moreover Washington has signalled it would prefer a navigation service to complement, rather than replicate, that offered by its own GPS.
The government has moved to exploit the opportunity presented by OneWeb’s collapse to secure a frontline position for Britain in cutting-edge satellite navigation systems by developing a low-earth-orbiting navigation service. It also underlines the government’s determination to take state ownership in leading sectors if deemed in the national interest.
Even before OneWeb went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March, researchers had proposed that the company’s satellites could deliver a more resilient navigation service, complementing the likes of Galileo or GPS.
Supporters have argued that OneWeb’s future service would be significantly harder to jam than GPS or Galileo.
However critics say that the OneWeb constellation — designed for communication rather than positioning services — is ill suited to navigation needs and much of the technology is still unproven. While it has licences for substantial broadcast spectrum, the frequency is not appropriate to navigation, they insist.
Meanwhile the government has announced that chancellor Rishi Sunak will chair its National Space Council, launched a year ago during the visit of President Donald Trump to the UK as an attempt to co-ordinate the requirements for space of different Whitehall departments. This would also allow Mr Sunak to keep a tight grip on spending on space projects, said government officials.
The chancellor’s support for the OneWeb investment showed he was willing to acquire public stakes in private companies involved in the cutting edge of technology, especially if they were struggling with the fallout from the Covid outbreak, they added.
Bharti, whose telecom businesses include mobile operator Airtel, did not immediately respond to questions about its involvement.