It’s been a bright spot for Russia’s wobbly space industry:
A contract, estimated at $1 billion, to launch 21 Soyuz rockets over the next two years carrying “micro-satellites” — part of a U.S.-based company’s plans to offer broadband Internet access over remote territories of the globe, including parts of Siberia.
For the company, OneWeb, the effort was seen as a critical step in building out its “constellation of small satellites” and validation for investors who have put up nearly $2 billion. For Russia’s space agency, Roskosmos, the contract was both a crucial source of private revenue, and a foothold in the burgeoning global market for small-scale satellite launches.
Now, just months before the planned maiden launch, it appears that the Federal Security Service (FSB) may put a stop to it entirely.
The daily newspaper Kommersant reported on November 13 that the FSB, Russia’s primary security and intelligence agency, has serious misgivings about the micro-satellite venture. Citing unnamed government officials, the paper said the FSB feared that having an Internet provider whose signals would be transmitted via satellite would keep the agency from being able to filter and monitor Internet traffic.
Moreover, sources told the newspaper, security officials feared the satellites might be used to spy on sensitive Russian military sites.
The Kommersant report echoed a similar report by Reuters, on October 24, that quoted an FSB official voicing precise concerns about satellite spying.
Adding further to the questions about whether the launch will go forward, the Interfax news agency reported that the chief executive of the Roskosmos division that handles foreign commercial contracts, including the agreement with OneWeb, had been forced to resign after Roskosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin ordered an inspection of the division.
E-mails sent to both OneWeb, and its launch provider, the European aerospace giant Arianespace, were not immediately answered.
Founded by Greg Wyler, a former executive at Google, OneWeb aims to put hundreds of satellites in low orbit over the Earth to provide data communication in remote locations. The company is one of several making the effort, but it’s attracted the largest amount of private financing, had started building assembly factories, and was the closest to actually getting its satellites off the ground.
Key to the effort was contracting with Arianespace to arrange for the launches, using Russia’s workhorse rocket, the Soyuz, launched primarily from Russian facilities at Baikonur and Vostochny, and several from the European Space Agency-owned site at Kourou, in French Guiana.
At the time the contract was signed in 2015, the then-head of Roskosmos hailed it as “proof of Russia’s competitiveness.” The first launch, of a Soyuz rocket carrying 10 micro-satellites, was set for May 2018 from Kourou, but was then pushed back until year’s end. It’s now set for February 2019.
Two years later, OneWeb set up a 60-40 percent joint venture with a Russian subsidiary of Roskosmos called Gonets that would handle Internet service within Russia.
Earlier this year, Wyler told the industry publication Space News that the network of satellites would in fact have ground stations, through which Internet traffic would be channeled. But his comments suggested that there wouldn’t necessarily be ground stations in every country where the Internet service was offered.
“What we hear from regulators is they want to know the physical path of their traffic and they want to make sure it lands in a place where they have control and management of that data, just like every other Internet service provider in their country,” Wyler was quoted as saying. “This doesn’t mean the gateway needs to be in their country, but it means they need to know exactly which gateway their traffic will land at and they need the legal ability to control the router at the entry point into their national network. From a regulatory perspective inter-satellite links have been highlighted as a major concern.”
In recent years, Russia has steadily tightened control and surveillance of the country’s once wholly unfettered Internet. Part of that effort has involved policing editorial content and, for example, prosecuting people for sharing on social media material deemed to be extremist under the country’s broad anti-extremism laws.
But Russian regulators have also moved to tighten technical controls, requiring major technology and Internet companies like Google or Facebook to physically house servers within Russia, giving Russian law enforcement a way to access them. That also includes use of a system known as SORM, which is essentially a filter — a black box the size of an old video recorder — that allows Russian security agencies to intercept or eavesdrop on Internet traffic.
As recently as October 26, Rogozin held discussions in Moscow with Arianespace CEO Stephane Israel about OneWeb, according to a statement on Roskosmos’s website.
The meeting came two days after the Reuters report on the Russian objections. The report said that OneWeb and Gonets has restructured their stakes in the joint venture to make Gonets the majority shareholder.
For observers of the global commercial-satellite industry, the uncertainty hanging over such a high-profile, well-funded project like OneWeb tarnishes Roskosmos’s ability to be a competitive player for space flight in general.
One of Roskosmos’s other lucrative sources of revenue is its contract with the U.S. space agency NASA to shuttle astronauts to and from the International Space Station. But the recent mishap involving a Soyuz rocket raised questions about the Russian technology, which has been around for decades and had been considered reliable.
Kazakhstan, where Russia’s storied Baikonur cosmodrome is located, recently said it had hired the private U.S. company SpaceX to launch several of its own science satellites.
The uncertainty with OneWeb, said Carissa Christensen, founder and CEO of Bryce Space and Technology, a Virginia-based research group focusing the commercial space industry, may push customers away from Roskosmos.
“This just disconnects Russia some of the most active commercial space activity going on today, and it hands over potentially very desirable launch customers to other small launch providers,” she said.
In an opinion column published on November 15 for the Russian business newspaper Vedomosti, contributor Valery Kodachigov poked fun at the apparent FSB concerns that the OneWeb satellites could be used for spying within Russia. But he also pooh-poohed the idea that OneWeb would be singularly able to bring Internet service to the further reaches of Siberia or the Russian Arctic.
“The interference by Russian bureaucrats and security officials in the plans of eminent investors gives OneWeb’s history in Russia both scale and tragedy. But is it really all so scary for OneWeb and the Russian users who may be left without satellite Internet? For now, one thing is clear: the residents of Russia will not remain without mobile access to the Internet,” he wrote.