Eva Berneke describes his first year at the helm of the world’s third-largest satellite company as a “whirlwind.” That is an understatement. Since taking over the top job at Eutelsat in January 2022, the Danish chief executive has become a direct competitor of Elon Musk, accused by the Ukrainian government of aiding Russian propaganda and found herself in the middle of bitter government politics. Brexit, and that was before. You even mention the Iranian sabotage attempt.
Despite all this, Berneke gives the impression that he has everything under control. When he arrived at Eutelsat, the French company’s main business was to transmit television channels to homes using geostationary satellites, which move at the same speed as the Earth and therefore remain in a fixed position. The organization he inherited was stable and solid, he says, but also stagnant in an industry undergoing sea change. Although he was starting to use his geostationary fleet to offer satellite internet, his TV revenue was declining.
The entry of two of the world’s richest men, Elon Musk with SpaceX’s Starlink network and Jeff Bezos with Project Kuiper, was also beginning to change the way headlines thought about their future. “When you have two of the biggest business innovators interested in your industry, you should expect a bit of a stir,” Berneke says.
Undaunted, Berneke responded by initiating his own reorganization. In July, the company announced plans to merge with British satellite provider OneWeb. As part of the deal, Eutelsat absorbed OneWeb’s constellation of 648 low-orbit satellites. Just 1,200 km above Earth, OneWeb’s fleet offers faster internet speeds than Eutelsat’s geostationary satellites, which sit 35,000 km above the planet’s surface.
OneWeb is Eutelsat’s ticket to the booming market for low-orbit satellites. Rural households, ships, airlines, the military, and self-driving vehicles are turning to satellite internet to stay connected in places previously considered dead zones.
“Even in France, a country with very high fiber and 5G coverage, it is estimated that around 4 percent of households do not have good connectivity,” says Berneke. She expects this figure to rise to 15 percent of households in countries with less fiber and 5G. “So it’s not such a small niche.”
The OneWeb-Eutelsat merger has been touted as Europe’s entry into the space race. It is the only company currently competing with Musk’s Starlink in the low orbit market. But to claim its title as a European space giant, Eutelsat first has to navigate complicated post-Brexit politics. Both France’s Eutelsat and Britain’s OneWeb were partially owned by their respective governments, and the two countries will continue to have stakes in the new business.
Berneke admits that Brexit has brought challenges. “But there has been willingness on both sides to cross the Channel to try to find a good way to collaborate,” she says. If Europe wants a homegrown satellite giant, Britain and France will have to work out their differences. “[OneWeb’s fleet] it’s going to be one of the only constellations outside of the US for a while,” she says.
Brexit politics is not the only obstacle. OneWeb’s Gen One satellites need to be upgraded, and Eutelsat plans to have more advanced Gen Two satellites in orbit by 2027. Berneke says this upgrade will cost between 3 billion and 4 billion euros ($3.3-4.4 billion), a move bold for a company with a reputation for playing it safe.