The sky is no longer the limit: next generation satellite technologies are building Europe’s connectivity future

#CriticalThinking

Digital & Data Governance

Picture of Elodie Viau
Elodie Viau

Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications at the European Space Agency (ESA)

Individuals, small businesses, frontline staff, security forces, civil service, governments and all wings of the European economy and way of life increasingly rely on a secure, sovereign and resilient digital infrastructure to fulfil their daily operations. Data production, storage and transfer is at the root of this accelerated change and has become a prerequisite for many in European society.

However, recent events have demonstrated that any unprotected or poorly-controlled backdoor could be used to penetrate even the most sensitive networks of the most powerful countries. Vulnerabilities in digital infrastructure have foreshadowed direct attacks which paralyse critical oil supplies, hospital operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, or potentially ground critical safety and security assets in times of crisis.

Even the cornerstone of European democracies – the act of voting – can be shattered if vulnerable systems fail to prove they’re capable of being trusted. Indeed, the future of Europe has many dramatic examples of digital insecurity to concentrate on. Digital infrastructure is essential, and it is critical for sovereign countries and people to be able to trust in secure connectivity’s availability in times of crisis – when Europe needs it most.

Europe can learn from recent cyber-attacks to inform its understanding of sovereign connectivity. How useful is a door in protecting your home if you don’t know who else has the keys? Sovereign connectivity means regaining control of supply chains through European design and manufacturing of digital infrastructure. Achieving this for Europe is both a critical step towards knowing who has the keys and a necessary step towards improving trust.

Next generation satellite technologies are part of the solution

Connectivity today is ubiquitous. For everyone, everywhere, being able to connect to key services online has become indispensable and influenced how we engage with education, economic growth, societal cohesion and so much more. But as climate change-related natural disasters grow in frequency and severity, their disruptive and long-lasting impacts on key services in Europe call for robust solutions. Europe needs resilient connectivity.

Next generation satellite technologies are part of the solution. An incredible wave of innovation is transforming a sector that was mostly proposing solutions for TV broadcasting only a number of years ago. Back then, it was inconceivable that the same solutions would enable this secure, sovereign and resilient connectivity ubiquitously through the deployment of hundreds and even thousands of satellites.

Operating in all possible orbits to transmit data to where it is needed at any time, even during a crisis, ensures that professionals across various sectors can mitigate the worst effects of the crisis and maintain operations capably, be they business owners, healthcare workers, military services or humanitarian aid organisations with operations in Africa and elsewhere. They all attest to satellites’ ability to facilitate their workflows.

This innovation effort must be scaled up and stay on course in the coming years, both in space with modular payloads on satellites with optical links to others in orbit and on the ground with automated operations and a sophisticated communication network, boosted by artificial intelligence (AI). In this regard, AI will become the mainstay of any ground communications network as it is the only way to operate and maintain such a vast and complex multi-orbit constellation of satellites. In addition, quantum-based encryption and even quantum communications will have to be considered as possible steps to being actively prepared.

Real opportunities for Europe exist to rapidly scale up space-based operations

Thanks to continuous efforts by European governments and the satcom sector over the last 25 years, European manufacturers are currently at the forefront of this domain. Supported by joint public-private investment in innovation and competitiveness through the telecommunication programme of the European Space Agency (ESA), our industry delivers geostationary satellites that are some of the most powerful in the world, proves hugely successful in their gain of commercial contracts for low earth-orbit constellation and in providing highly secure communications to European military forces. Europe can rely on a solid technology and manufacturing base to build the next generation of satellites with security, sovereignty and resilience to its core.

But we are today at a crossroads. In the United States and China, powerful private companies with government-backing, such as SpaceX and Amazon, are developing or have already deployed large fleets of satellites numbering thousands with the power to potentially overwhelm European operators, and with them, the whole European space sector within a few years. Now is the time for action.

Launched one year ago by Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for the Internal Market, the Secure Connectivity initiative’s aims are important to facilitate this need for action. The European Commission is indeed the sole player capable of motivating EU member states towards shared objectives, such as the space-based contribution to our digital infrastructure, but also to stimulate joint public-private investment in an effective response to non-European competition. Since the telecom and satcom sectors are mostly driven by private investment, joint efforts seem imperative.

The ESA has also proved itself to be at the cutting edge of innovation and competitiveness for the last 25 years through the Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems (ARTES) and its projects with industry partners. Working together with the European Commission on the Secure Connectivity initiative, real opportunities for Europe exist to rapidly scale up space-based operations to rival US and Chinese competitors.

In order to build secure, sovereign and resilient connectivity, Europe must put its faith in such initiatives. They will shape the future of the space sector. ESA can help by setting up an effective public-private framework for development, initial deployment and end-to-end system validation of this ambitious infrastructure. There really is no time to waste.

This article is part of the Friends of Europe’s Making Space Matter initiative, in partnership with the European Space Agency, which aims to answer pressing questions about how investing in European space exploration, capacity and infrastructure can boost governance, cooperation and societal empowerment.

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