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ALEX BRUMMER: Selling Inmarsat to predator a cause for concern

Too often, abandoning a tech champion such as Inmarsat to even the most well-meaning of predators has proved to be a mistake, says ALEX BRUMMER

  • Britain’s leadership in geostationary satellites is why Inmarsat is being wooed
  • Country needs to be a space wars player in age of hypersonic weapons systems 
  • Is UK willing to allow valuable tech to fall into overseas hands? 

The UK Space Agency is never going to compete with Nasa any more than Silicon Glen is likely to displace Silicon Valley. Nevertheless, the UK’s innovative R&D, engineering and aerospace skills mean that it is well placed to compete on the next frontier. 

Britain’s leadership in the field of geostationary satellites, critical to marine and aerospace navigation, is among the reasons why pioneer UK operator Inmarsat is being wooed so vigorously by its US competitor Viasat. 

The easy part for Viasat chief executive Richard Baldridge is convincing the Inmarsat board that his £6.5billion bid is irresistible. The harder part is to persuade the UK authorities that such a deal is good for Britain’s national and economic security. 

Up in the air: Britain’s leadership in the field of geostationary satellites is among the reasons why Inmarsat is being wooed so vigorously by its US competitor Viasat

Baldridge is so keen to get the deal that he is in Britain to make the case with the authorities personally. He has already made a series of undertakings to boost the UK’s engineering and R&D capacity for the new space age if the transaction is done. 

Viasat is also promising to support the ambitions of the UK Space Agency by funding educational initiatives. The Inmarsat-Viasat deal is the first big test for Britain’s National Security and Investment Act. To be completed the deal will have to overcome the hurdles of security and competition reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. 

The fate of the transaction will show the resolve of Boris Johnson’s government in the face of the long-term economic damage that can result from letting British brain power, R&D and patents disappear over the horizon. Baldridge wants to convince all those involved that the opposite is the case. 

But too often, pledges made in the white heat of takeovers have led to a loss of command and control over vital technologies. 

What is indisputable is that as satellite makers and operators, both the would-be partners find themselves on the cusp of the next frontier for technology. 

In a post-Brexit effort to go it alone in space the Government ploughed £400m into OneWeb, which aims to create a low-orbit network of satellites. The investment has been questioned as an unproven technology and has suffered a setback thanks to Russia’s war in Ukraine. Before sanctions, Russian rockets launched the satellites. 

Scepticism in Britain ought to be allayed by the space race under way in the US. Two of the world’s richest tycoons, Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Elon Musk, are investing heavily in low Earth orbit. Bezos is planning a £7.7billion network of 3,500 satellites. His ambition is less lofty than Musk’s and is intended to support Amazon cloud computing and communications operations. 

As always Musk does nothing by halves. The SpaceX Starlink project is seeking to launch 42,000 satellites, cluttering up the Earth’s atmosphere with its ambition. 

This ring of satellites is seen by Musk as an essential prerequisite for missions to Mars. If anyone thinks this is crazy, they should remember how Musk was mocked for his electric car ambitions. He now leaves established car makers such as General Motors and Volkswagen in the dust. 

Even though Inmarsat is principally involved in the highest tech satellite business, the activities of all the space pioneers are closely connected. 

Britain clearly needs to be a space wars player in the age of hypersonic weapons systems. Israel’s Iron Dome system already seeks to protect strategic targets against precision guided missiles. The big question for ministers is whether the UK is willing to allow valuable tech to fall into overseas hands – even those of its closest ally. 

Matching the spending power and ambition of Bezos and Musk will never be possible. Yet too often, abandoning a vital and fast-growing tech champion such as Inmarsat to even the most well-meaning of predators has proved to be a dreadful mistake.