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Global Navigation Satellite System

Volume 810: debated on Wednesday 10 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the design and development research for the United Kingdom Global Navigation Satellite System has been completed; and if not, what is the timeline for (1) the development of the requirements, and (2) the procurement, of that system.

My Lords, the space-based positioning, navigation and timing programme is one of the key programmes in the Government’s major projects portfolio. This underscores the importance of strengthening resilience for critical national infrastructure, given the wide use of PNT services. The UK’s requirements for trusted services will be confirmed in March as part of a national PNT strategy. In response to the strategy, the programme will identify in November a preferred space-based solution to improve our PNT resilience as part of a mix of technologies.

My Lords, the outrageous behaviour of our European friends over the use of the Galileo system necessitates our going our own way, or in league with the Five Eyes community, our real friends, over the provision of additional GPS. Such a system is critical, as the Minister says, not just for defence and security but for a broad swathe of things in this country. There are real concerns over resilience. There is a great deal of confusion, misinformation and fake news swirling around about OneWeb. It is time to get clarity and a sense of urgency. Have we decided on the use of low-earth-orbit capabilities for a sovereign-based PNT system, also providing secure satellite communications, not least 5G connectivity?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. We have always been clear that the possible provision of PNT services was not the rationale for our investment in OneWeb. The programme is analysing a number of ideas for concepts in low earth orbit, and OneWeb is of course one of the many companies that are contributing to that.

My Lords, could my noble friend help me and explain why an independent space-based positioning, navigation and timing system is necessary, whether it is affordable and whether the investment in OneWeb is a practical and cost-effective means of delivering it?

I answered the point about OneWeb in the previous answer. That is not the rationale for our purchase of OneWeb. PNT services from space underpin all 13 critical national infrastructure sectors, including national security, defence and transport. They are an important component of future technologies such as autonomous vehicles, smart cities and so on, so it is essential that we have our own autonomous capability.

My Lords, there is increasing concern from the scientific community about the impact of large satellite constellations upon astronomical observations. What work is being done to address this aspect of the OneWeb constellation? Specifically, what measures are being considered in the satellite design and operation to reduce its albedo?

The noble Lord makes an important point. OneWeb has met the Royal Astronomical Society to discuss the potential impact of its operations on astronomy. We will continue to support that dialogue and wider engagement with the scientific community.

My Lords, the Minister said that he was clear that OneWeb was not going to play a significant part in the PNT strategy—while at the same time saying how important that was —but he did not say what exactly it would be doing. Could he elaborate a little more on where he sees the focus of that £1 billion investment?

As I said in answer to the noble Lord, Lord West, we have been clear that the possible provision of PNT services was not the rationale for our investment in OneWeb. OneWeb is primarily a telecommunications operation and that is what its primary focus will be. However, we are not ruling out that it may play a role in future services to come.

My Lords, the cost of OneWeb does not stop with the Government’s share of $1 billion. In order to complete the array, the chairman of Bharti Enterprises says that a further $2.5 billion will be required, for which the Government are on the hook for $600 million. Given that that has to happen soon, where in the Budget is that line for the Government’s investment, and what value are UK taxpayers going to get from that huge amount of money?

We will be setting out a strategy for OneWeb in the future. We have made an investment in OneWeb and we are looking for alternative sources of finance to come.

Following on from the questions from my noble friends Lord West and Lord Stevenson, does OneWeb have a proven PNT capability? How is the Cabinet Office-led review progressing, who is being consulted and when will its findings be published?

That is the third time that this question has been asked. Government investment in OneWeb was for cutting-edge telecommunications capability based on market analysis. We have always been clear that PNT services were not the rationale for this particular investment.

My Lords, this is an ambitious project, but I cannot help but feel that, on a cost basis alone, it is one that is best pursued with our allies, perhaps the Five Eyes community. There is no doubt that we have an enormous amount to offer, not just the skills that we hold here in the United Kingdom, but does my noble friend agree that the strategic location of some of our overseas territories in the southern hemisphere will make us very attractive partners?

Indeed. I know that my noble friend has great experience in these matters. Collaboration with partners and industry will be vital for success in this field. A new UK capability could offer opportunities to deliver more on global Britain through strengthening our international relationships. We would most likely seek to use our overseas territories for ground-based stations.

My Lords, it is highly regrettable that our Brexit negotiations failed to secure a deal over Galileo. Are there any plans to try to revisit that and negotiate a deal, rather than ploughing our own course? Could the Minister also tell us about the National Space Council, which was announced in June 2019? How often has it met? Was it consulted over the purchase, which others have mentioned, of OneWeb, which was done against the advice of the Civil Service?

The answer to the noble Baroness’s first question is no. The UK National Space Council, chaired by the Prime Minister, will continue to play an important role in future government affairs.

My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register. The Blackett review into critical dependency on the GNSS was published in January 2018. What progress has been made on the review’s first recommendation that operators of this critical national infrastructure should report on how vulnerable their systems are to a failure or interruption of the GNSS network? The Cabinet Office was tasked with assessing our overall dependency on these systems. When will this be published, along with an action plan to remedy any weaknesses and the proposals for back-up systems called for by Oliver Dowden, then the Cabinet Office Minister?

The UK PNT strategy group is developing the UK’s first national PNT strategy, which includes a review of critical dependencies and actions. Decisions on the publication of the strategy and leadership for implementation are subject to a wider review of PNT governance being led by the Cabinet Office.

My Lords, the Government paid £400 million for a minority interest in a failing company whose satellites, as we have heard, are for communication, not navigation. What kind of investment was that?

Further to what a number of speakers today have said, could the Minister clarify whether the Government are pursuing a formal partnership with our Five Eyes allies? Would that not be a good idea for our long-term security?

That is indeed one of the points that are being considered in the review, which will be reporting at the end of March. We will then outline a business case and, if there can be collaboration with our Five Eyes partners, I am sure we would want to go down that route.