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Sky no longer the limit as EU seeks to shape digital future

Space-based constellation of broadband satellites to provide Internet access across the continent and even Africa.

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

Published: Tue 8 Feb 2022, 11:40 PM

The sky is no longer the limit as the European Union continues to announce new initiatives in its bid for “digital sovereignty” — the latest is a space-based constellation of broadband satellites to provide Internet access across the continent and even Africa.

The European Commission will unveil the architecture for its satellite constellation “in a few weeks”, the EU commissioner in charge of civilian space initiatives said last week. Thierry Breton, whose formal title is European Commissioner for the Internal Market, is a former CEO of France Télécom. He said he hopes the new network could be operational by 2024.

In addition to satellite-based Internet, Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s sweeping vision of a ‘Europe Fit for the Digital Age’ includes EU-wide cloud computing, digital IDs valid in all member states, personal data security and clearly outlined rights, all part of “Europe’s digital decade”.

No longer willing to simply react to what Big Tech introduces next, the EU is on the track to influence the digital future, even in space where it already has a proven strength in satellites.

In remarks to the press, Breton emphasised that “Europe is already a great space power. We have some of the best players in the world, both in the field of launchers and satellites, as well as many startups. But it’s also a sector that’s increasingly contested. It is a strategic sector. It needs to be protected and defended for Europeans”.

He says the EU’s existing sovereign satellite network, which includes the Galileo and Copernicus systems, is already one of the most powerful in the world.

The Galileo system enables highly accurate ground positioning on Earth, while Copernicus monitors the planet, providing timely and open data and imagery that helps track the environment and provide civil security.

Massimiliano Salini, a member of the European Parliament from Italy, specialises in EU space initiatives. He says the bloc has had great success with its programmes, achievements largely unknown even to its own citizens.

Since the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon unified EU space policy “its flagship programmes Galileo and Copernicus represent a true European success”, says Salini. “However despite the success, this sector — which accounts for almost 10 per cent of the EU’s GDP — is still unknown to many European citizens. An example is the satellite navigation system Galileo. Despite it being the most accurate navigation system in the world, used today by one billion devices at the global level, most European citizens do not even know of its existence, even using the name of its American competitor (GPS) when they refer to it.”

He added that its sister programme Copernicus “enables us to see everything that’s happening from space, with images of course, but soon there will be many other things — radar, detection of CO2 emissions”.

Other uses of the European system include precise agriculture and monitoring infrastructure and cultural assets.

But the EU lacks a sovereign, secure ring of satellites to provide universal Internet access that would bypass both the limits of fiber optic cable and US domination of high tech.

Its plans for a big investment in space commercialisation put it in a select group of companies and governments working on Internet services provided by orbiting satellites.

“My objective is to go fast,” Commissioner Breton told the 13th European Space Conference held last month in Brussels, noting he has ordered a study to determine the scope of the system with results due by April.

The EU initiative is a response to the private sector push into space funded by billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. “SpaceX changed the market and we need to catch up with them,” Hugo André Costa, a member of the board of the Portuguese Space Agency, said at the recent conference.

The proposed EU Internet system would be similar to Starlink, a huge constellation that Musk says would have more than 40,000 orbiting transmitters.

Hervé Derrey, CEO of French-Italian aerospace company Thales Alenia Space, says “mastering the digital flow is key for the future”, stressing that Europe trails companies like Microsoft that are expanding cloud computing into space.

To meet some of the challenges, Breton is promising “the largest ever EU-level budget for space”, some 13.2 billion euros over the next seven years.

And the stakes are enormous. The digital economy is expected to add 1.1 percentage points to economic growth in the EU every year and boost GDP over 14 per cent by 2030, an additional 2 trillion euros.

Yet today Europe relies on foreign companies for most of its digital life. The vast majority of European citizens depend on overseas email providers, while 92 per cent of the western world’s data is stored in the US.

Such digital dependence has created a major problem. To thrive economically, Europe needs to be a leader in digital business, but that will only be possible if it has the control and sovereignty in technology that engenders trust from its consumers and citizens.

And to build trust it needs to break the mold created by Big Tech, which has developed a business model Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism”. She defines that as turning personal data into a commodity that is leveraged and monetised, bought and sold.

No one likes to think they are being monitored for profit, so many in Europe are no doubt eager for alternatives with the muscle to stand up to Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

But can that be made a reality? Europe certainly has the brainpower, but the looming question is whether it has the needed grit, determination and relentless enterprising spirit.

The answer is crucial — it will do no less shape our increasingly digital future.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are veteran 
international journalists based in Milan

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