It is nearly a month since we reported that “new options for a UK satellite navigation and timing capability programme to support the nation’s critical infrastructure will be explored by the UK government.”
Let’s be clear: the UK only needs this capability because it has lost access to the EU’s Galileo programme and I am talking about it now only because that is how long it has taken for me to obtain answers to what I thought would be straightforward questions about the project from those involved in it.
I had addressed my questions to the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (DBEIS) press office, which forwarded my questions elsewhere and I am only permitted to say that my replies came from “a government source”.
Most importantly, I asked whether it will actually provide a navigation service. Given that the project is named the Space-Based Positioning Navigation and Timing Programme (which is curiously abbreviated to ‘SBPP’; why is there no ‘N’ for Navigation?), I thought the question would have had a simple one-word answer, but that’s not what I got.
Instead, my ‘source’ said that, since the SBPP is “an exploratory programme”, he could not “guarantee what the final product and eventual services will be at this stage,” although “navigation is a key element being explored.” So there is a possibility that it will not include navigation services and even if it is eventually included, it is not clear to me how that will be achieved with the resources that have been lined up to provide it.
I asked that basic question because although the statement issued on 24 September by the DBEIS and the UK Space Agency referred to navigation a number of times, it said that the new system would exploit “technologies offered by companies at the cutting-edge of innovation such as OneWeb, Inmarsat and Airbus.”
None of those three offers any satellite navigation services: Inmarsat provides first-class communications and the US-based OneWeb was conceived as a satellite-based global internet provider. That was not a success and the company was rescued from Chapter-11 bankruptcy by the UK government in a deal that surprised satellite industry observers. Their astonishment was because it would put OneWeb – which has no navigational capability – at the heart of a navigation system.
They also remarked on the price paid: the UK government felt it was worth investing $500M for a 45% stake in OneWeb, with India’s Bharti Enterprises taking a matching amount while the original investors retained 10%.
Airbus has a great deal of experience of developing satellite technology so perhaps it will be tasked with reengineering the OneWeb vehicles, although the 74 (out of a planned 648) already in orbit are presumably beyond its reach. Airbus has also been involved in a JV to manufacture OneWeb’s satellites, so it at least knows their technology and architecture.
It is worth noting that much of Airbus’s satellite experience comes from its work on the EU’s Galileo system, so it will be interesting to see whether it needs to erect any ‘Chinese walls’ within its development teams to prevent Galileo-based knowledge leaking across to its UK rival.
Along with my request for assurance that the new system would include navigation, I had asked what improvements users will see compared with other available GNSS services. My source again noted that, because SBPP is an exploratory programme, “we can’t speculate on what our final recommendations or ultimate user benefits will be.” However, as “our understanding of the UK’s PNT requirements has matured” there is the potential for “improved resilience for critical national infrastructure” and reducing costs by taking advantage of “different style signals, satellites, orbits and commercial models than conventional ‘satnav’ systems.”
I also wondered just how clean a break is being made with Galileo, given Airbus’s involvement and because the DBEIS statement had said that the “new SBPP will consider collaboration with international allies”. Could those allies, I asked, include the EU and US and thus involve collaboration with Galileo and GPS development teams?
But my source was clear that “the UK is not seeking to continue participation in Galileo”. This is because, during discussions about the Withdrawal Agreement, “the EU’s offer on Galileo did not meet the UK’s security and industrial requirements and did not allow the UK a level of access that would enable us to assure the system and use it for purposes such as defence and security.”
Looking through Five Eyes
So who are those ‘international allies’? My source referred me to the Five Eyes community of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US, saying that this group of nations “will be approached for input and potentially also collaboration in SBPP.” What level of collaboration has not yet been defined “but the SBPP represents a clear opportunity to deliver a more ‘Global Britain’ and strengthen international relationships whilst maintaining UK freedom of action,” my source said.
These Five Eyes partners have been approached as part of a “Request for Information to solicit ideas from external experts about innovative concepts for space-based PNT.”
This surprised me because, as the DBEIS statement had explained, the SBPP follows an earlier UK Global Navigation Satellite System (UK GNSS) programme, which concluded at the end of September.
Depending on which newspaper you read, that earlier project was either abandoned, scrapped or ‘shutdown’ after “wasting £64M” (US$83M). In fact, the UK GNSS programme was not abandoned, my source assured me; it had simply “completed its 18-month task to develop outline plans for a conventional satellite system similar to American GPS or EU Galileo.” So why are fresh ideas now needed from other nations?
No-one seems to have told the Scottish government about that 18-month timescale because as recently as February this year, it was submitting plans for a rocket launching site to support the project. Nor was a UK government minister – quoted in the report my link connects with – aware of that end-date, otherwise he would not have spoken confidently at that time of a £5Bn UK GNSS-related investment programme that would be announced “around March” 2021.
That Scottish scheme is continuing, although when planning permission was granted in June, a news report did not refer to any potential involvement in the UK’s project.
And what of those ‘outline plans’ that the UK GNSS scheme was established to deliver? If they contain anything useful, why is the UK government now having to reach out to its Five Eyes partners for ideas?
Those plans do exist, my source confirmed, and the SBPP’s mission is both to build on them “and exercise further due diligence … to compare against newer, more innovative ideas of delivering global ‘sat nav’ and timing services.” It is right, he went on, “for the UK Space Agency to investigate wider options to ensure that we recommend the right capability.”
This will not be cheap. Perhaps I am old fashioned, but I like to have an idea of the expected outcomes and likely bills before I embark on a big capital project, but that is not the case here. “No decision has been made yet on what [SBPP’s] capability may be or its cost,” I was told.
Who needs it?
Finally, who will use it? There are currently four GNSS services and two regional ones – you can read about them here – and we can all access them. Will the UK Navy be required to use the new SBPP, I wondered? “I want to reassure you,” my source replied, “that beyond 1 January 2021, the UK public and businesses will continue to have access to open services provided by various international GNSS systems … and the UK armed forces will still retain access to the US GPS secure service.” That seems to cover all bases.
“UK armed forces have had privileged access to the encrypted service of US GPS for decades and will continue to use the service for navigation and timing purposes,” he went on. As for Galileo, its secure service “is still under development and is only expected to be operational in the mid- to late- 2020s.” In any case, when it does become available, the UK will not have access to it.
When the SBPP will be available, however, is not clear, but its development “will ensure it is coherent with existing programmes … to meet the nation’s current and future PNT needs,” he said.
Yet despite this, “we will still rely primarily on the accurate and secure service provided by US GPS,” he added. To me, that statement pulls the rug from under the whole programme and when I put it to my source that the UK is only developing an independent GNSS because it has left the EU, he would not “speculate on what may, or may not have been if the UK had decided to remain in the EU.”
Nor would he discuss how much the UK has so far invested in Galileo. “The UK contributed to the EU budget as a whole … therefore, it is not possible to separate UK funding which has been allocated to Galileo,” he said.
Others disagree. In May 2018, the BBC reported that the UK government had asked for a £1Bn refund of monies it had spent on Galileo and this report is quite specific in saying that “the UK has paid 12% of the cost of the €10Bn project.” That figure has not been plucked from thin air and closely resembles the £1Bn mentioned in the BBC report.
For most commercial purposes, there are plenty of GNSS options available so the logic of a home-grown UK alternative comes down to security access: Galileo is off-limits to the UK and a fall-back option to GPS is undoubtedly a good policy.
I ought to support it for that reason and, grudgingly, I do, because of where we are now. But I have my fingers very firmly crossed behind my back.