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EU to launch its own communications satellite network

November 18, 2022

The European Union hopes to have its own communications satellite system up and running by 2027. The importance of the project became clear after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Internet antenna sitting atop a bed of leaves
Starlink satellite internet antennas like this one in Ukraine keep people connected. But relying on a single billionaire like Elon Musk comes with problems.Image: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

Negotiators from the European Parliament and EU member states agreed on Thursday to greenlight the satellite communications internet system IRIS2 (Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnection and Security by Satellites).

The €6 billion ($6.2 billion) project is part of an initiative to wean the EU off a bloc-wide reliance on foreign suppliers like China and Russia. EU agencies will contribute €2.4 billion to the project, which lawmakers project will enable secure communication services by 2027. The private sector is expected to fund the remaining €3.6 billion.

Plans were first announced in February, before Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In the months since then, satellite internet has proven useful. Shortly after the start of the war, Russia blocked Ukraine's terrestrial internet connection. Tech billionaire Elon Musk offered the country free access to his satellite internet system Starlink in response, which kept people connected to the internet despite the Russian attacks on Ukrainian telecommunications systems.

But last month Musk said he won't offer the service for free forever and asked the US Department of Defense to help foot the bill, a move that brought Ukraine's reliable, secure internet access back into question.

Starlink satellite orbiting Earth
Musk's Starlink currently offers free internet access to UkrainiansImage: La Nacion/ZUMA Press/picture alliance

IRIS2 would offer a solution to problems like this, according to a statement by European Parliament centrist political group Renew Europe.

"[IRIS 2] will secure the Union's sovereignty and autonomy by guaranteeing fewer dependencies on third-country infrastructure, and the provision of critical communication services where terrestrial networks are absent or disrupted, as observed, for instance, in Ukraine," the statement read in part.

The program's main objective is to offer governmental services secure access to the internet in crisis situations — like cyberattacks and natural disasters that damage terrestrial internet access — but the multi-orbital satellites will also offer broadband connection in places where internet access currently isn't available in Europe, the Arctic region and Africa.

"For the first time, the European Union will have its own telecommunications constellation, in particular in low orbits, the new frontier for telecommunication satellites," said MEP Christophe Grudler of the Mouvement Democrate, France, also the rapporteur on the EU secure connectivity programme.

IRIS2 will join EU satellite systems Galileo, which specializes in navigation, and Kopernikus, which does Earth observation, both of which have been circling the globe since the late 1990s.

The future of satellite internet

Edited by: Carla Bleiker

Clare Roth
Clare Roth Editor and reporter focusing on science and migration