Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, where he co-directs the Outer Space Institute.
The Trudeau government will soon deliver on a 2015 election promise to bring high-speed broadband to every Canadian, including in rural and remote regions.
Last week, the government announced that $85-million from its Strategic Innovation Fund will help Ottawa-based Telesat “build and test innovative technologies for its low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite constellation.”
At the same time, the government declared its intention to provide a further $600-million over the first decade of the constellation’s operations. This funding, however, remains “subject to reaching definitive terms of a contribution agreement.”
This is all good news, because satellite constellations in low-earth-orbit are the future of communications.
Until now, remote communities have relied on satellites in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometres above the equator. These communications suffer from small delays, or “latency,” because of the distances involved. The location of the satellites, combined with the curvature of the planet, mean that the bandwidth is relatively small.
Technological advances in geostationary satellites have brought some improvements. Last summer, Telesat launched Telstar 19 Vantage, which resulted in a five-fold improvement in connectivity in Nunavut. Earlier this week, Huawei announced that it would be doing something similar in partnership with two small Canadian Internet service providers and using a satellite owned by a company from Luxembourg.
Fibre-optic cables have been extended to some remote communities, including Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. There is also a plan, supported by the government of Nunavut, to lay a cable from Iqaluit to Greenland, which is already connected to Europe.
However, laying cables in remote regions is difficult because of the distances involved, an absence of roads, and the fact that most Arctic communities are on islands – with icebergs regularly scouring the surrounding seabed.
For these reasons, more than two-million Canadians still do not have access to reliable high-speed internet.
Constellations of satellites in low-earth-orbit require little in the way of infrastructure, can reach everywhere and have relatively little latency. They might also be extremely lucrative, because they can provide service around the world, including to the half of humanity that still lacks access to broadband.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is leading this new space race. Having pioneered rocket reusability, it has very low launch costs. It has also invented flat-pack satellites, 60 of which can be launched at a time.
SpaceX is planning a constellation of nearly 12,000 satellites, creating a web of internet connections less than 350 kilometres above the Earth, with the satellites relaying transmissions among themselves before accessing the optimal ground stations.
OneWeb is also building and launching the first of its satellites as part of a planned constellation of about 2,000 satellites. OneWeb’s launch costs are higher than SpaceX’s because it is outsourcing its launches to other companies using non-reusable rockets. However, it has deep pockets, thanks to backing from Airbus, Coca-Cola and SoftBank.
Here in Canada, Telesat has only one test satellite in orbit and will be contracting out construction of the rest to an as-yet-undetermined partner. When the satellites are finally launched, around 2023, they will be placed roughly 1,000 kilometres above the Earth.
Although Telesat is starting from behind, it has no option but to compete. Its geostationary satellites are serving yesterday’s market; the future is in low-earth-orbit. And to compete against larger players such as SpaceX and OneWeb, it needs government support.
Telesat has delivered for taxpayers before. It began as a Crown corporation, designing and building Anik A1, the world’s first domestic geostationary communications satellite. Now privately owned, Telesat is the world’s fifth-largest satellite operating company, with 15 satellites in geostationary orbit. It remains a Canadian company, with the controlling shareholder being the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.
Taxpayer support will enable Telesat to build ground stations near Canadian data hubs, keeping data traffic entirely within Canada. This will enhance security and provide Telesat with a competitive advantage in the domestic market.
However, satellite constellations in low-earth-orbit are not without their problems. Astronomers are concerned that all of these satellites will create light pollution, making it difficult to use ground-based telescopes.
Then there is the problem of space debris. Telesat’s 298 satellites would, on their own, amount to one-quarter of the current number of operational satellites, and one-10th of all the satellites launched since Sputnik in 1957.
There are already millions of pieces of debris in low-earth-orbit, most of them resulting from collisions between operating or defunct satellites. Scientists warn that, once a certain concentration of debris builds up, the rate of collisions will escalate to the point where operating satellites could become impossible.
There are ways to prevent debris, including by deorbiting satellites at the end of their operational lives. But this requires technology, equipment and, therefore, cost – which means that governments have to make all companies do so.
So far, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been licensing the low-earth-orbit constellations. SpaceX already has approval for all of its planned satellites, as indeed does Telesat.
But should national entities be regulating an international domain? A Chinese company is already planning a low-earth-orbit constellation, Russian and Indian companies will likely follow, and none of these companies are likely to apply for licences from the FCC.
The use of geostationary orbit is co-ordinated by the International Telecommunications Union, but expanding this service to low-earth-orbit remains in the discussion phase. Canada, as a significant space-faring country, and now an investor in Telesat, has influence in these matters and should be exercising leadership.
Taxpayer support for a satellite constellation in low-earth-orbit makes sense. Universal high-speed internet is a prerequisite for a modern economy. Having a Canadian company providing that service, and competing internationally, will help this country stay at the front of the new space race.