Tuesday, August 06, 2019

An optimistic update from Telesat

Once the 100 inclined-orbit satellites are in orbit, they may be able to utilize their inter-satellite laser links to achieve the 30 ms latency Goldman spoke of.

Polar (green) and inclined (red) orbits
Emily Jackson interviewed Dan Goldberg, Telesat President and CEO, in a recent episode of the Down to Business podcast. The interview followed the announcement that the Canadian Government would contribute $85 million (all amounts are in Canadian dollars) to support research and development in support of Telesat's planned constellation of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites and another $600 million to subsidize Internet connectivity in rural Canada.

Goldberg pointed out that all governments subsidize rural connectivity and said the $600 million grant was expected to generate $600 million in revenue from below-market-rate sales to telephone companies and ISPs. The remaining capacity would be sold to others and he said they anticipated sales to enterprises, governments, ships, and airlines, but did not mention marketing directly to consumers. (Only SpaceX seems to be targeting consumers from the start).

In return for the R&D contribution, Telesat has agreed to support approximately 500 professional jobs in Canada and invest $215 million in R&D. (That R&D includes the first dozen or so test satellites). Telesat has a profitable, established geostationary satellite business and will fund part of the constellation themselves, but they will also need debt and equity financing and Goldberg said this government support would make it easier for them to finance the constellation.

This financial news is important, but Goldberg's optimism about the technology is what caught my attention. They have been working on their LEO project for six years and during that time the cost of launching satellites -- geostationary as well as LEO -- has fallen dramatically and he expects it to continue to do so. He also predicted that the cost of mass-produced satellites will fall dramatically and he is confident that inter-satellite laser links (ISLLs) and electronically-steerable phased-array antennas will be cheap enough to allow them to compete successfully with terrestrial fiber and 5G, offering fast, 30 ms latency broadband. (ISLLs present both technological and political problems).

The only technological concern he expressed was with regard to the problem of radio interference. He did not say anything specific on these technologies but did point out that Telesat has been providing satellite service for 50 years and is the "leading satellite technical consultant" in the world. (Three percent of their revenue is from consulting).

Goldberg summed up his optimism by saying:
Our confidence level in terms of our ability to bring this disruptive capability to the market and provide an extraordinarily high-quality, disruptive broadband service to Canadians and also to everybody else living in the world is extraordinarily high. This is not some high, big-gamble, futuristic new technology. This technology will be disruptive but it is ready for prime time.
Yes, but ...

SpaceX simulation with uncovered areas
Goldberg said they could could achieve global coverage with only 72 satellites and a simulation by Mark Handley predicts that SpaceX will not completely cover the planet with 792 satellites. How do we explain the difference?

SpaceX with 792 satellites would have much more capacity than Telesat with 72 satellites and Telesat does not plan to offer service with only 72 satellites. They plan to start service at the end of 2022 with around 200 satellites in polar orbit. They will add 100 more in inclined orbit in 2023 and perhaps eventually reach 500 satellites. Those 200 polar-orbit satellites will serve the polar regions, fulfilling their promise to provide connectivity in rural Canada. (This is reminiscent of China's Hongyun LEO satellite project which will focus on rural China).

While the 200 polar orbit satellites will provide coverage in rural Canada, they will be partially reliant upon terrestrial ground stations to reach the entire globe and therefore latency will suffer. However, in 2016 Telesat filed for a patent on a "Dual LEO Satellite System and Method for Global Coverage" and once the 100 inclined-orbit satellites are in orbit, they may be able to utilize their inter-satellite laser links to achieve the 30 ms latency Goldman spoke of.

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