We Don’t Need To Buy A Satellite System At All

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Here we have a lovely example of the political system not even asking the right question let alone coming up with the right answer.

For the question being asked is, now we’ll not be – most likely anyway – a part of the EU’s Galileo satellite system which other satellite system must we buy into? Then everyone’s going off and shouting about whether it should be OneWeb, or perhaps Musk, or Inmarsat, or, well, whoever and whatever:

The UK government’s plan to invest hundreds of millions of pounds in a satellite broadband company has been described as “nonsensical” by experts, who say the company doesn’t even make the right type of satellite the country needs after Brexit.

The investment in OneWeb, first reported on Thursday night, is intended to mitigate against the UK losing access to the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system.

But OneWeb – in which the UK will own a 20% stake following the investment – currently operates a completely different type of satellite network from that typically used to run such navigation systems.

“The fundamental starting point is, yes, we’ve bought the wrong satellites,” said Dr Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy expert at the University of Leicester. “OneWeb is working on basically the same idea as Elon Musk’s Starlink: a mega-constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, which are used to connect people on the ground to the internet.

The actual answer is that we don’t need to buy into anyone’s system at all. Just as we shouldn’t have into Galileo in the first place.

For, d’ye see, GPS is a public good. The US allows anyone to use the signals. Not that they can really stop people doing so either. Not unless they take the whole system down.

So, there’s the US system, free for all to use. A global public good – this means it doesn’t matter who provides it, it is there. It also means we don’t need our own. Which, in turn, means we don’t and didn’t need the Galileo system, let alone another one after we’ve left that.

As I said, politics not even asking the right question. They’re asking “which new system should we have?” when the correct questions is “why do we need a new system?” and given that the answer to the second is we don’t therefore the first is entirely moot.

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James
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James

No. GPS offers many services. Only coarse positioning is a public good and this can be degraded by the USA over a theatre of interest. If you want your modern munition to hit the target you need uncle Sam’s permission. I suspect that in the long run the EU will cave in over Galileo. The Eastern European states won’t want to rely on the French to fight or the Germans to stand up to Russia.

Spike
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Spike

And it is foolish to plan for permanent reliance on the US, given just this year’s proof that (1) “innovative” US politicians will use even access to our clearinghouses and consumers as a geopolitical weapon, (2) “cancel culture” and the boycott/divestment craze show that we can be gotten to act rashly over anything, (3) we don’t think straight nor take the long view (the Covid panic and Black Lives Matter), and (4) we don’t know economics, Trump always describing healthy imports as theft and Biden just not knowing what anything is for.

Leo Savantt
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Leo Savantt

Satellites are not just used for positioning and the internet, whether that be the useless Galileo or the excellent Russian GLONASS and American GPS systems or indeed commercial internet systems; there are other security and science related uses. Furthermore the UK is a world leader in small, highly capable and inexpensive, suitcase sized satellites. From a national security and scientific perspective it makes a great deal of sense for the UK, positioning and internet aside, to have its own network. This need neither be expensive nor extensive to have utility. A UK launch capability, with low payload requirements, would help… Read more »

jgh
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jgh

But it still leads to the question of why should the government be doing this? If it’s so useful, the private sector will be fighting themselves to do it. I can see the point of legislating that any two-way satellite up there should be available for use by anybody’s subscribers, a la phone mast sharing and trunk line backbones, but that doesn’t mean the government is the one who has to put them up there. And one-way sats where your receiver is just observing its position, as Tim pointed out, are just as impossible to prevent nonsubscribers using as preventing… Read more »

John B
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John B

Because it’s about defence, like providing a navy or army, not general use. Competition for the latter is already there.

MrYan
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MrYan

The same argument is made about maintaining a “British” defence capability. All it leads to is BAE Systems fucking over the taxpayer with the active participation of the MOD.

Witchie
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Witchie

Isn’t that better than Boeing doing it?

Bloke on M4
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Bloke on M4

The only way that you could justify it is that we think the USA might switch the system off, or selectively block satellites over the UK because we get pissed with each other, and there’s always the possibility of that, but it’s extremely unlikely.

This is just the whole “playing with the big boys” thing. People who want us to have stuff because it makes us a proper big country, rather than Switzerland, which seems to be considerably richer.

Boganboy
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Boganboy

However, although it’s playing with the big boys, I do think the UK’s nuclear deterrent is a sensible idea. After all, if the US has to choose between being blasted by nukes, or just shrugging and letting them blast you instead, what do you think it’ll do.

Bloke on M4
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Bloke on M4

I’m pro-nuke over conventional weapons for the UK, as we’re so easy to blockade and you’ve always got to have defence.

The thing with GPS is the old “under what circumstances would this happen?” If the USA switches off GPS, it would probably be because we’re in a world war situation and it’s only getting used for military purposes. Are we going to care about finding the nearest Starbucks?

Not that I think there’s the remotest possibility of another world war for a century at least. Agricultural land is cheap, so not worth the blood and treasure of going to war over.

Spike
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Spike

Reread comments. The USA could make GPS imprecise because the UK came to Israel’s aid and the moonbats President Biden is pandering to now demand that we mustn’t support you.

Agricultural land is not what anyone is fighting over now. But they are fighting; in order to boss others around, or keep from being bossed around. Trump is distracted, China is aggressing on all sides, and eventually, someone will have to check them. No world war in a century? Would love to take that bet.

Ahem
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Ahem

The FOAM crypto project https://www.foam.space is an interesting example of how the private sector might roll out a partial competitor to GPS (at least on land at the earth’s surface) at relatively very low cost. The network provides proof of location in a privacy-preserving way; it lets you prove that you (or a proxy using your ID?) were at point X at time T, but nobody else can see that information unless you tell them. Participants are incentivised to host small radio transmitters, which form a terrestrial network. The FOAM project has two parts, and they don’t always explain what… Read more »

Spike
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Spike

India is building a system of terrestrial radiobeacon towers for a national positioning system. It obviates the major cost of launching satellites, also the continual compensation for their gradual drift. So, no, “we” don’t need to own a system, nor does it need to be global, nor does it need to be satellites. Doubt that the enemy would rely on it, but the Ministry of Defence could disable it when bombs were falling, without owning the whole thing.

Quentin Vole
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Quentin Vole

There’s some value in a national positioning system, but the military will want stuff that works in foreign. And I’d quite like my ‘Google maps’ equivalent to work overseas, too.