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Satellite Internet Service Progress by SpaceX and Telesat

Artist’s concept of a Telesat LEO broadband satellite. Credit: SSTLThis has been a busy week in the race to deploy constellations of low-earth orbit (LEO) Internet-service satellites.

In their quarterly report, Telesat mentioned progress in two, disparate markets. As I noted earlier, they have signed their first LEO customer—Omniaccess a provider of connectivity to the superyacht market. Telesat is a Canadian firm and the quarterly report also said Canada’s 2019 Federal budget included a commitment to using LEO satellite services to help bridge the digital divide. They will be serving Russian oligarchs and rural Canadians.

Telesat also announced that the two teams they contracted with to develop overall satellite and ground system proposals, Airbus and a consortium of Thales Alenia Space and Maxar Technologies, had significantly advanced their detailed designs for the complete system, having completed the system definition and risk management phase of the program. Telesat will continue their collaboration with both teams and will select a prime contractor later this year.

Telesat’s coolest development was the announcement that they had demonstrated 5G mobile backhaul. They collaborated with Vodaphone and the University of Surrey in a test of their experimental satellites and recorded round trip latency of 18-40 milliseconds. The demonstration supported video chatting, Web browsing and simultaneous streaming of up to 8K video. The team also transferred 4K video to the edge of the 5G network. SES is already providing mobile backhaul using their middle-earth orbit satellites and it seems that the new LEO constellations will be competing with them. This will be an important application for rural areas and developing nations.

Telesat has signed launch contracts with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and they plan to be operational by 2022. (Bezos will also be a Telesat competitor, but his LEO project has just been announced).

SpaceX also made the news. SpaceX president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, confirmed that the launch scheduled for May 15 will include “dozens” of Starlink Internet-service satellites.

She characterized these as “demonstration” satellites and said they would not include satellite-to-satellite laser communication links. Bulent Altan, CEO of satellite laser company Mynaric, estimates that their laser terminals will cost around 250,000 euros in quantities of 1,000. SpaceX will have 4 in each satellite and they plan to start offering broadband service once they have 800 satellites in orbit—in the 2020-2021 time frame.

OneWeb will forego inter-satellite optical links in their initial constellation, but they seem to be making steady progress in antennas for satellite-to-ground communication. Both are key technologies for LEO satellite Internet service.

Shotwell said that depending on how the demonstrations proceed, from two to six Starlink launches could follow by the end of this year. In the past, they referred to these as “operational” satellites. Maybe the switch to “demonstration” means they will use them as a marketing tool and the number of launches later in the year will be determined by sales.

Update May 11, 2019:

TMF Associates suggests that the FCC may be favoring SpaceX Starlink and that the upcoming launch may carry as many as 40-50 satellites. The post also suggests that they may be launching so many satellites in order to generate publicity to spur further investment which has been difficult during the past year.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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