The Council of the European Union has given the final go-ahead to a new LEO communications satellite programme that is essentially designed to reduce the continent's reliance on Starlink et al.

Mary Lennighan

March 7, 2023

3 Min Read
Communication network above Earth for global business and finance digital exchange. Internet of things (IoT), blockchain,
Communication network above Earth for global business and finance digital exchange. Internet of things (IoT), blockchain, smart connected cities, futuristic technology concept. Satellite view.

The Council of the European Union has given the final go-ahead to a new LEO communications satellite programme called IRIS² that is essentially designed to reduce the continent’s reliance on Starlink et al.

The €6 billion programme covers the 2023-2027 period and should see early services from next year will full operational capability to come three years later. At least, that was plan just over a year ago, when it was first presented. Now the EU notes that the Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite constellation, or IRIS²,” will provide ultra-fast (low latency) and highly secure communication services by 2027.” That may or may not represent a downgrading of expectations; we have become used to delays in EU satellite programmes over the years, after all.

The regulation adopted by the Council on Tuesday was presented by the European Commission in February 2022. The Commission highlighted the need for secure space-based connectivity in the hands of the EU at a time when low-earth-orbit satellite systems had already become a hot topic and Brussels was feeling left out. And willing to throw some cash at the problem.

“Several major non-EU government-backed projects with a variety of connectivity strategic objectives are underway,” the European Commission said, without naming names. We knew who they meant though.

“These strategic infrastructures initiated by all major space powers highlight the growing global need for governmental services to ensure a resilient connectivity to support not only their security operations, but also to connect critical infrastructures, manage crises as well as to support border and maritime surveillance. To date, there are no operational or in-the-making EU assets in low Earth orbit (LEO) or medium Earth orbit (MEO) that could meet the evolving governmental user needs,” it explained.

By its own standards the EU moved pretty quickly. The Council and the European Parliament reached a provisional agreement on a regulation establishing the secure connectivity programme in November, and after this week’s final approval the project should be able to get underway.

That means the award of contracts and decisions on which private players should be allowed to participate. The European Space Policy Institute (ESPI) late last year named SES, Hispasat and Eutelsat as being among several satellite operators keen to join in, but it cautioned that there would be a number of hoops to jump through for private players. We’ll have to wait and see on that score.

The EU needs private players to stump up a fair chunk of cash though. A year ago it said it would contribute €2.4 billion to the project, although it took care to note that the figure was based on current prices, which will doubtless have changed in the interim. The remainder of the €6 billion will come from the private sector.

“Currently, low orbits are increasingly occupied by third-country mega-constellations, with EU operators facing challenges due to the capital-intensive nature of such projects,” it said on Tuesday. Essentially, it needs to move quickly.

Indeed, one of its key messages is around covering “geographical areas of strategic interest beyond the European borders, such as the Arctic region or Africa.” But the likes of OneWeb, Starlink and others were racing for Arctic coverage two years ago. The EU is somewhat behind the curve.

That’s not unfamiliar territory for its satellite folks though. It is talking up the synergies between IRIS² and other areas of the EU space programming, namechecking the Galileo sat nav system, amongst others.

But how could we forget the years, if not decades, of delay before Galileo eventually got off the ground in 2011?

IRIS² will need to move much faster.


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About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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