Canadian satellite operator Telesat is joining the battle for low-earth-orbit-based broadband services, announcing today that it has selected a vendor to manufacture the nearly 300 LEO satellites that will form the initial basis for its new Lightspeed LEO network.
Thales Alenia Space will build the 298 satellites which will be integrated with an “advanced ground network.” Telesat said that the Lightspeed network will be “optimized to serve the fast-growing broadband connectivity requirements of fixed and mobile network operators, aeronautical and maritime users, enterprise customers and governments.”
Telesat said it expects the first Lightspeed satellites to be launched in about two years, with beta testing to start shortly after that and commercial services coming in the second half of 2023. The network will use Telesat’s Ka-band spectrum rights.
Telesat already signed a $600 million deal with the Canadian government late last year, committing to allow third-party Internet and mobility service providers to acquire capacity from Telesat’s LEO network at “substantially reduced rates” in order to bring universal broadband connectivity to rural, northern and indigenous communities across Canada, where only about 40% of rural households and about one-quarter of indigenous households have access to high-speed internet service.
Telesat promised “reliable, secure, fibre-like broadband connections” that would meet the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC)’s goal of least 50 Mbps download, 10 Mbps upload speeds with unlimited data.
LEO satellites are being explored as an alternative to terrestrial-based wireline and fixed wireless broadband networks, with an eye toward bridging the digital divide.
SpaceX’s LEO satellite service Starlink won nearly $900 million in U.S. government funding to provide broadband service in 35 states over the next decade, through the Rural Digital Opportunities Fund program. Starlink recently said that it has more than 10,000 users in its beta phase and laid out plans for voice and Lifeline services. The company has said that it currently has more than 1,000 satellites in orbit (out of more than 4,400 that it has FCC permission to launch and operate).
However, whether these new players can deliver on their promises remains to be seen. Softbank’s OneWeb LEO satellite service ran into financial trouble after launching dozens of satellites and declared bankruptcy a little less than a year ago; the company was then acquired by the U.K. government in partnership with Indian telecom company Bharti Airtel for $1 billion. OneWeb has re-started satellite launches in December and gained additional new funding; it also reduced its proposed satellite constellation plans for the U.S. market from nearly 48,000 satellites to about 7,000. OneWeb said last month that it is committed to launching its first-generation system of 648 satellites and is “on track to start regional commercial services within a year.”
In addition, Alphabet recently abandoned its ambitions to build a network of high-altitude drone-based cell sites, shutting down its Loon subsidiary which had tried using balloons to do so and in recent years, helped provide mobile connectivity in the wake of disasters such as Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and worked with partners including AT&T.
CEO Alastair Westgrath wrote in a Medium post announcing the wind-down of Loon that “The reality is Loon has been chasing the hardest problem of all in connectivity — the last billion users: The communities in areas too difficult or remote to reach, or the areas where delivering service with existing technologies is just too expensive for everyday people. While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way,” he added, “we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business.”
Loon had also worked with Softbank subsidiary HAPSMobile on an LTE payload for a fixed-wing autonomous aircraft flying in the stratosphere; the two partners were able to conduct a video call using that set-up last October.