There is a potential £160 million up for grabs in the Low Earth Orbit satellite sector, which would represent ‘the UK’s most significant ever investment in satellite communications’ if it goes ahead.

The Connectivity in Low Earth Orbit scheme (CLEO) would provide funding for UK researchers and businesses to develop new constellations, and it suggests desirable projects might take the shape of smarter satellites with better hardware, AI systems for faster data delivery, and methods of linking up satellites for improved connection.

The government is ‘exploring’ initial grant funding of up to £100 million, as well as an additional £60 million from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) UK-backed Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems (ARTES) programme. All in all, the package would mark the UK’s most significant ever investment in satellite communications, we’re told.

CLEO would aim to deliver ‘the R&D needed to support the launch of hundreds of satellites into space, revolutionising the UK’s communication infrastructure and closing connectivity gaps,’ explained the release.

“Tackling the digital divide is at the heart of empowering our citizens wherever they live, and by investing in the vital research and development that CLEO would facilitate, we can level up our country while growing the economy through high-quality jobs,” said Science, Innovation and Technology Secretary, Michelle Donelan.

“This proposed record investment is also potentially a huge opportunity to harness our reputation as a world leader in innovation and R&D investment, supporting leading UK businesses to deliver the next generation of satellites and positioning the UK as true space superpower.”

Harshbir Sangha, Missions and Capabilities Delivery Director at the UK Space Agency added: “Today’s announcement is a vital step towards the delivery of a key priority of the UK Space Agency – to maximise the potential of low Earth orbit and become a global leader in next generation satellite communications technologies by building our ability to service future high-volume constellations.

“Our intent is to catalyse investment, build on existing capabilities and meet the challenges associated with seizing a significant share of a fast-moving global market, by leveraging our growing national space programme and leading investments in commercial ESA programmes such as ARTES.”

All of this is subject to government approvals and should it progress, there will be the usual application process for interested and eligible parties.

There is certainly a willingness by the government to throw cash at telecoms related ventures at the moment – just yesterday it was announced that £40 million will be dolled out by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology to ‘spark local digital revolutions and unlock 5G benefits across the UK.’ If all goes well with CLEO, it would represent one of the larger pots of money being put out there.

Turns of phrase like ‘positioning the UK as true space superpower’ is a bit cringy of course, but that sort of thing seems to be firmly in the lexicon of the government when it talks about tech, as is evident in the stated ambitions to upgrade old blighty into a tech superpower and an AI superpower respectively.

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