Elon Musk’s Starlink Low Earth Orbit (LEO) network has been awarded US$885 million over ten years to build out rural internet access in the U.S. This was the fourth-largest amount awarded under the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). Testing of preliminary Starlink service has recently begun. This is a billion-dollar (almost) vote of confidence in a service that is at the preliminary consumer testing stage.
For rural and remote Canadians does this mean that competitively priced high-speed broadband access will finally be available anywhere? For others, new technologies will be competing against today’s cable, Telco, and independent internet service providers. But the new LEO services are still a year, two years or more away from full-scale commercial operation depending on who you ask in the satellite industry.
When Musk first announced his plan several years ago, he said he was targeting 30% of the global broadband access market by 2030s. How? And what makes LEO satellites different from the GEO (Geostationary) satellites that have been in service since the 1960s? What makes them different from existing LEO networks like Iridium and Globalstar?
With thousands of satellites, the unit cost is projected to drop because they are produced by normal industrial processes whereas geostationary satellites are built one-by-one making them comparatively expensive. The LEO satellites only have to be launched a few hundred miles above the earth so launch costs are much lower than for a GEO satellite that has to travel 35,000 Km to geostationary orbit.
LEO satellites have much lower latency than GEO’s because they are so much closer to the earth. Latency refers to how much time it takes for a signal to travel to its destination. LEO satellites are projected to have latency as low as terrestrial fibre networks and even lower in some situations. GEO’s take over 600 milliseconds to make the trip from earth to the satellite and back.
The new LEO networks are broadband, providing much more capacity (higher speeds) than the earlier generation Iridium narrow band capability that has delivered satellite phone service and short data messages since the 1990s.
Amazon’s Kuiper program and Starlink are getting most of the press but they are not the only entrants in the broadband LEO market. O3B (meaning the Other 3 Billion people who did not have good internet access) has been operating for several years in Mid Earth Orbit (MEO), a little higher up than LEO. It turns out that it has been successful in higher-priced niche applications like communications to superyachts than its name implied was its original target. Nevertheless, O3B is operating successfully.
The new entrants have added satellite-to-satellite communications which should greatly reduce costs by reducing the need for ground stations and double hops. An email going from Canada to China can go up to one satellite and then transfer to other satellites in orbit to arrive at its destination.
OneWeb has also been launching LEO satellites and building ground stations. Recently it went into Chapter 11 and was reorganized and refinanced with the help of the UK government, as well as private sector participants. Now, OneWeb is building and launching satellites again.
Telesat Canada, founded with federal government participation in 1969, was long described as Canada’s domestic satellite communications carrier. By combining operations with Loral in 2006, it became one of the big four global GEO satellite companies. Telesat also has a major LEO system on the drawing boards and has launched several demonstration satellites. Canada’s federal government has invested heavily in this venture with both cash and commitments to purchase service in the future.
There are four or five entrants (if you want to include O3B) chasing the same market with highly capital-intensive technology. Are there too many players for the size of the market? Has the glamour and romance of space attracted too many players? Will there be more big bankruptcies like those in the narrow-band LEO sector in the early 1990s? To remain viable Iridium had to be re-organized with virtually the whole of the original investment written off and still required a major commitment from the U.S. Department of Defense for future service. OneWeb’s Chapter 11 reorganization is an indication of the risk even though it emerged successfully.
Mergers are not really a practical solution if it turns out that there are too many participants. They can’t merge the networks because the technology of each company is incompatible with the others. They each have their own version.
Finally, with the exception of O3B, we have yet to see pricing for commercial enterprise and residential services.
Although there are still some unanswered questions, these are exciting times in the satellite industry. The emerging LEO systems will be disruptive, shaking up both the traditional satellite industry and challenging terrestrial fibre-optic communications and just possibly putting an end to the digital divide.
Roland Renner is a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. A former employee of Bell and Telesat, he assists companies competing with Telco, cable, and satellite incumbents, including Hunter Communications, owner of a GEO satellite beam with high-power northern Canadian service capability.