To Infinity and Beyond: How BT is supporting the UK’s national and defence space strategy
By Mauro Mortali, Senior Manager, Public Sector Strategy at BT
It’s fair to say that BT is a brand best known for the legacy it has built on solid ground - trusted as an institution to keep customers in the UK, and 180 countries worldwide, connected.
But our aspirations are limitless, and perhaps less well known is BT’s role in the space industry – 60 years of experience that have played a major part in a number of satellite communications achievements.
Our journey first began in 1962 with the launch of the communications satellite Telstar 1 by NASA, which enabled the first live broadcast of television images between the United States and Europe, landing in the UK at the satellite ground station Goonhill Downs in Cornwall in BT’s previous guise as the General Post Office.,
Since then, we’ve been continuously bold with our ambitions. We’ve set global standards for open parabolic satellite dish design, we relayed the historic pictures of the first moon landing to television screens in the UK, we’ve beamed television signals for Europe’s first satellite transmission service, and launched the world’s first satellite telephone system on a British Airways 747. And since the 2000s, we’ve continued to innovate with an increasing focus on integrating satellite with ground-based communications, such as the development of the European ‘Next Generation EGNOS wide area network’, used to support global satellite navigation systems, which involved creating a highly resilient service across fibre and satellite, certified as suitable for Safety-Critical Systems.
Today, both as a service provider to the space industry and as an integrator of space components in the delivery of services to customers, BT has a significant role to play in supporting both the growth and innovation of the UK’s space industry - helping the government achieve its ambition of putting the nation “firmly in the front rank of the global space industry”, as outlined in its recently announced National Space Strategy.
The space industry itself is significant - according to the 2020 ‘Size and Health of the UK Space Industry’ survey, total UK space industry income grew to £16.4 billion in 2018-19, which is estimated to be 5.1% of the global space economy. And the impact of this is considerable – wider industrial activities representing over £360bn of the UK’s non-financial business economy GDP are now supported by satellite services.
So, to help the UK in its mission, we’ve developed a six-pillar space strategy that is built around the belief that terrestrial and non-terrestrial convergence will be a key factor in unlocking its value. Innovation sits at the heart of this strategy, and focuses on collaborating across the space ecosystem, providing ubiquitous connectivity, flexible and ultra-resilient services, and enabling the creation of new applications, services, and business models.
Some of the commitments of our six-fold strategy include becoming an active participant in forthcoming discussions and decisions, having recently re-joined UK Space - the UK trade association for the space industry, and we now chair the Satellite Telecommunications Committee. We’re continuing to work with start-ups, scale-ups, established companies and research and innovation bodies to collaborate on relevant research and commercial opportunities. We’re already working on collaborative space related projects with the UK and European Space Agencies as well as academic institutions, including the Universities of Surrey and Stirling, which we’ll continue to build on.
There’s exploration to be done on the role of emerging space technologies on the delivery of services to our customers too, and we’ll be leading the charge on the disruptive thinking and solutions that are needed to promote the UK as a global thought leader in space. The UK has a strong base in Quantum Computing upon which to build, and we are playing our part here, collaborating with the UK’s first space unicorn - satellite quantum key distribution company Arqit, and on the ground too with Toshiba in creating a metro quantum network. We also recently signed an industry-first global partnership with OneWeb to provide Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite communication services. We are testing OneWeb’s capabilities in our labs in Bristol, Madley and Adastral to understand how they integrate and work with our existing services and we will soon move to carrying out early adopter trials with customers.
Our relationship with OneWeb is part of a multi-orbit constellation strategy supporting global coverage utilising different satellite systems. It also forms a vital part of BT’s vision to enable a coverage solution anywhere in the UK by 2028, by offering opportunities to connect beyond the reach of 5G and fibre networks. The integration of satellite into the EE network is a critical enabler of the Emergency Services Network in helping BT provide high levels of availability and resilience to the country’s critical national infrastructure. The list of future use cases that can be addressed with satellite will also widen thanks to the lower latency that LEO satellites provide, removing a critical technical barrier to adoption. The emergence of small satellite IoT providers, offering direct to sensor connectivity over satellite expands the reach of Internet of Things (IoT) services to rural and remote locations
These are exciting times for the UK space industry. And as a significant contributor to the UK space economy and one of the world’s leading communication companies, we have an important role to play in cementing the UK’s position as a space industry leader.
Our ambition is to become the world’s most trusted connector of people, devices, and machines. And as a British institution on a mission to connect for good, we believe the sky really is the limit.
You can read more about our full BT Space Strategy here