Monday, December 28, 2020

Telesat update -- proposal for a larger constellation, Canadian and DARPA contracts, a planned IPO and more

Telesat has a number of unique advantages and, if LEO broadband truly is a half a trillion-dollar addressable market, there will be room for multiple providers.

Blue satellites are in polar orbits and
red satellites are in inclined orbits.
Click here for animation.

I've discussed Telesat's LEO broadband project in earlier posts, but the project has progressed, so an update is needed.

The original plan was to launch 117 satellites but that has changed. The phase 1 constellation will now have 298 satellites and the second phase will add 1,373 for a total of 1,671. The revised plan has been submitted to the FCC, and they expect it to be approved next year.

While Telesat applied to increase the number of satellites, the macro architecture remains the same as originally planned. There will be two sub-constellations, one with 351 satellites in polar orbits (98.98 degrees/1,015 km) and another with 1,320 in inclined orbits (50.88 degrees/1,325 km). This patented architecture will enable them to serve the entire globe. (I am not a lawyer, but I wonder whether that is something that can be patented).

The sub-constellation architecture will enable global coverage and low latency but will require sophisticated inter-satellite laser links (ISLLs). It turns out that DARPA is also developing Blackjack, a military LEO communication constellation, and since the military requires low-latency and the ability to quickly establish connectivity at arbitrary, perhaps remote locations, they require ISLLs. Telesat received a $2.8 million study contract for the design of the Blackjack bus in 2018 and was awarded $18.3 million to develop and test Blackjack last October. In that role, Telesat selected Mynaric to supply ISLLs and may use them in their satellites as well.

The Canadian government has granted Telesat C$85 million to support research and development and another C$600 million to subsidize Internet connectivity in rural Canada. The R&D funds will go to early satellite tests and will support approximately 500 professional jobs and the rural connectivity funds are like those in the US where SpaceX was awarded $885 million.

While Telesat will have global coverage, they will focus on Canada and the north at first and that will put them in competition with OneWeb which plans to do the same. OneWeb will have a head start since it already has a distribution partner and plans to begin service in the north next fall, but Telesat will need fewer ground stations because of it's ISLLs and it already has 10 GEO teleports in North America and two others in Hawaii and Austria.

Telesat has run tests and done demonstrations of many potential applications since launching a test satellite in 2018 and Lynette Simmons, Director of Marketing and Communication, says the system design is complete and they expect to announce the prime contractor very soon. They will finance the constellation by restructuring and a public stock offering. President and CEO Dan Goldberg is confident that they will be able to raise sufficient capital based on their track record. The company is over 50 years old and is a large, global GEO satellite operator that has been broadcasting televiion since 1978, providing Internet connectivity since 1996 and they have been doing advanced research for both the US and Canadian governments. Goldberg thinks LEO broadband is a half a trillion-dollar market and you can see his pitch in the following video.

Let me add a little speculation. Nearly two years ago, Telesat signed an agreement to use the software defined network (SDN) platform Google had developed for Project Loon, which provides connectivity using baloons in the stratosphere. If Telesat's system design includes Google's SDN, Telesat LEO satellites may be able to interoperate with Google's baloons. Going a step further, they may one day interoperate with Telesat's GEO satellites, creating an integrated three-layer network routing packets between as well as within layers depending upon the service level required by a customer or application. An integrated network could also provide fallback in the case of equipment failure.

A reader recently commented on my Twitter feed that Telesat was "moot," because SpaceX has superior launch capability and a head start, and OneWeb, which, like Telesat, is forsaking the consumer market for commercial applications like 5G backhaul, is a direct competitor. He was wrong. Telesat has a number of unique advantages and, if LEO broadband turns out to be anywhere near the half-trillion-dollar addressable market Goldberg expects, there will be room for multiple providers.

Updates 12/28/2020

A reader pointed out that Telesate has also committed to investing the revenue from their sale of C-band spectrum in the LEO constellation. That spectrum will be used for 5G mobile connectivity and will enlarge the prospective mobile-backhaul market.

Speading at a webinar on "Building NewSpace," Michel Forest, Telsat Director of LEO Systems Engineering says there is significant demand for LEO among their current GEO customers who want low latency and more capacity in specific places like airline hubs and ports. (33:37)

For a threaded discussion of this post on Reddit, click here.