Britain is facing the prospect of Canada gatecrashing its bid for OneWeb, the collapsed firm that No 10 hopes could provide the UK with a sovereign satellite navigation system.
The Telegraph can reveal that Britain’s bid, which will see the Government take a 20pc stake in OneWeb for $500m (£406m), is facing a final auction with a Canadian bid from satellite firm Telesat.
Meanwhile, Britain’s bid is understood to have the backing of Bharti Enterprises, the telecoms conglomorate owned by Indian billionaire Sunil Mittal.
An auction in a New York court will take place on Thursday for OneWeb, which declared bankruptcy in March after its biggest investors pulled out amid the coronavirus crisis. OneWeb’s satellite network has been billed as a potential rival to Galileo, the EU sat-nav project that the UK was ousted from after Brexit.
The satellite company was originally planning to build a 650-strong broadband constellation. However, officials believe it could be used to develop a sovereign version of a satellite navigation system.
OneWeb filed for bankruptcy protection in the US in March after Japan’s SoftBank, its biggest backer, pulled out amid the coronavirus crisis. OneWeb has already spent billions of pounds on its technology.
Proponents of the deal say the technology could provide a viable, cheaper alternative to building a full GPS system from scratch. Sceptics say the technology is untested. Although OneWeb is a UK registered company, its manufacturing facilities are in Florida.
The UK’s bid for OneWeb was signed off at a meeting last week with Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, and was only submitted at the last minute ahead of a deadline on Friday. Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s aide, is a strong supporter of the deal.
Telesat was one of OneWeb’s main rivals for building a low-earth-orbit satellite network, prior to the latter’s collapse. Its own planned network would have nearly 300 satellites for broadband by 2022. Telesat is owned by Nasdaq-listed Loral Space and Canada’s Public Sector Pension Board.
Chinese bidders who had expressed an interest in OneWeb prior to Friday’s deadline included Geely, the owner of Volvo. But their interest is understood to have wavered amid concerns a deal would be blocked by American regulators.
On Monday, Bloomberg reported Bharti Enterprises, which owns a major Indian telecoms firm, had also made a bid for OneWeb. The firm is owned by Indian telecommunications tycoon Mr Mittal. The Telegraph understands the bid is part of the UK-backed consortium.
OneWeb declined to comment on the UK and Canadian bids. It remained unclear if other firms were still in the running.
While the bids put the allies into competition, one source claimed it would be better if the UK and Canada worked together. “The grown up voices in the room would say let’s do it together,” a source said.
Telesat declined to comment.