LEO Cloud Satellite Broadband Moves Forward to 2020-2021 Service Date

High-speed satellite broadband networks competitive with the low latency and speeds of fiber continue to make progress.  Canada-based Telesat has received permission to serve the U.S. with its planned 120 satellite constellation, while OneWeb signed a $190 million contract with Hughes Network Systems for production of a ground network system to manage its forthcoming network of 900 satellites.  Meanwhile, SpaceX told Congress it expected to provide service in the 2020-2021 timeframe.

LEO – Low Earth Orbit–- cloud networks provide several key advantages over existing fixed-orbit GEO (Geosynchronous Earth Orbit) services.  Hundreds to thousands of low-flying smaller networked satellites provide coverage over the entire Earth’s surface, relaying communications between them, rather than having to go through ground stations, as do GEO satellites.   LEO satellites fly between a few hundred to a few thousand miles above the Earth’s surface,  so there’s little latency added, unlike the several hundred milliseconds added when communications are routed through a GEO satellite parked more than 22,000 miles over the equator.

Lower latency, faster routing, and global coverage give LEO cloud network and satellite operators a service competitive with broadband terrestrial fiber offerings for the first time. At least seven companies have filed plans with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reserve radio spectrum for LEO clouds, including Boeing, LEOsat, O3B, OneWeb, SpaceX, Telesat, and ViaSat.

Telesat started life in 1969 as Canada’s satellite operator. The privately held company currently operates 15 GEO satellites and launched its first “pathfinder” prototype LEO satellite in January and, by 2021, expects to have its first-generation 120 satellites in orbit and ready to deliver service to businesses, government, and individual users.

The FCC has granted permission for Telesat to offer its service in the U.S., putting it into competition with both existing high-latency GEO broadband services, such as ViaSat and other LEO networks under construction, like OneWeb and SpaceX.

OneWeb has made significant public progress towards its LEO network, including over $2 billion in funding from investors including Airbus, Bharti, Coca-Cola, Virgin Group, and Qualcomm. A $70 million satellite factory outside of Kennedy Space Center will open next year and is expected to crank out 15 satellites a week, with satellites going up next year.

By 2019, there should be enough satellites launched to support OneWeb service to Alaska, with the full first generation cloud of over 900 satellites capable of delivering 500 Mbps to global users by 2020.  A second generation in 2021 is expected to deliver speed of at least 2.5 Gbps, while a third generation will support 1 billion consumers around the world by 2025.

SpaceX, unlike its LEO competitors, plans to do nearly everything in house, from building end-user equipment and satellites to launching satellites on its own rockets.  In testimony before Congress, the company expects to have an initial 800 satellites deployed for commercial service by 2020 to 2021, with the remainder of its 4,425 constellation completed by 2024 or so. It isn’t clear how SpaceX will market and sell its StarLink service, but given the company’s penchant for owning and controlling everything, there may not be room for resellers in its business plans.  OneWeb has already announced deals with partners in Alaska and Saudi Arabia and it is likely Telesat will be looking for resellers in the near-future.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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