The UK will begin trialling Elon Musk’s Starlink technology in its first test of web-linked satellites to help meet the government’s ambition of providing ultrafast internet to all homes across the country.
The first Starlink satellites will be deployed to provide connectivity to a few specific isolated sites, including a 12th-century abbey in the North York Moors National Park, and rescue operations in the Lake District and Snowdonia National Park, according to a government announcement on Wednesday.
The government has opted to use Starlink, a satellite constellation operated by the billionaire entrepreneur’s SpaceX company, instead of the British satellite broadband pioneer OneWeb, which it rescued from bankruptcy in 2020 with a controversial $500mn investment.
As governments around the world grapple with how to provide ultrafast broadband connectivity to their populations in rural and geographically hard to reach places, several have opted to deploy satellites instead of making the costly investment to expand their terrestrial fibre networks.
Starlink was chosen mainly for its availability and low cost, the government said, although it added that it had not closed the door on using other suppliers and distributors, including OneWeb, in future satellite trials.
The announcement is an early indication that prime minister Rishi Sunak’s government is looking seriously at ways to improve access to fast and reliable internet to tackle the digital divide, and reach its goal of delivering gigabit-capable broadband infrastructure to 99 per cent of premises by 2030.
“High-speed broadband beamed to earth from space could be the answer to the connectivity issues suffered by people in premises stuck in the digital slow lane,” said digital secretary Michelle Donelan.
“Ensuring everyone can get a quality internet connection is crucial to our levelling-up plans and these trials aim to find a solution to the prohibitively high cost of rolling out cables to far-flung locations.”
The Conservative government has set aside £5bn as part of its Project Gigabit subsidy programme introduced last year to reach the final 20 per cent of the UK without access to ultrafast broadband, but has come under criticism from industry for failing to deploy the majority of the capital.
The government also announced on Wednesday that it had awarded its largest Project Gigabit contract to date, which will provide £108mn to Northern-Ireland based fibre provider Fibrus to connect up to 60,000 rural premises in Cumbria to gigabit broadband.
Once the Starlink pilots are complete, the government said it would assess the viability of using satellite technology to connect all remote homes and businesses across the UK, including those in extreme locations such as mountainous regions or small islands.
Starlink and OneWeb are two of only a handful of companies operating high-speed communication services from Low Earth Orbit, where satellites travel around the globe at an altitude of between 550km and 1,000km.
Starlink and OneWeb were contacted for comment.