For 50 years, Telesat was a leader in geostationary satellites. Then CEO Daniel Goldberg realized its competitors were about to blast past it. As told to Dawn Calleja
Our sector is exciting—you’re dealing with rockets and space, and it’s all really cool. But for decades, it has been coasting. At Telesat, half our business has been direct-to-home video, through companies like Bell and Shaw’s Star Choice. It was a nice, stable business that was growing at mid-single-digit rates. But things started to change, quickly. Netflix began delivering video over the internet, and our big customers started losing subscribers. On the other side of the coin, demand for broadband connectivity started growing dramatically in all the verticals we served, including video—Netflix, after all, is just video over broadband.
But our technology wasn’t keeping up. Geostationary satellites are really good for broadcast signals, but for broadband delivery, they are quite expensive. And it wasn’t the same kind of broadband experience you got over fibre or terrestrial wireless like 4G. That is because our satellites are 36,000 kilometres above the Earth, and it takes a second for the signal to go up to the satellites and back down again. Multiply that second across all the toing and froing IP traffic requires, and you get a slow, clunky service. Plus, each satellite takes three years to build and costs US$250 million or more, so the network isn’t as resilient.
There’s nothing new about low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite constellations. But it never made sense to use them to provide broadband. We were persuaded that new technologies—machine learning and AI, optical lasers, cheaper computer processors—would allow us to do it. Rockets are also much more plentiful and can deploy the satellites at a lower cost. And advanced manufacturing techniques, like 3-D printing—the constellation will comprise about 300 satellites, and once our factory is up and running, we’ll be able to produce 20 to 30 LEOs a month.
I should say that everyone who had launched a LEO satellite constellation before—companies like Globalstar and Iridium—had gone bankrupt. That wasn’t something we wanted to repeat, obviously. We have always run Telesat conservatively, and the capital requirements of this project will be multiple billions of dollars. Telesat has $900 million in revenue and $750 million in cash flow, so we’re a strong company. But it’s a big undertaking—and we are very far along the path. We have a very compelling design, and we’ve got applications in to patent some of the features. We were very quick in terms of getting the global spectrum rights we needed to operate a constellation like this. And we have already launched a satellite, on an Indian rocket, to test our design. Over the summer, we did a test with Vodafone to validate 5G connectivity. We are coming to the tail end of the procurement process, and we’ve already been signing up customers. And Telesat has been hiring to fill some of our competency gaps.
We’ve also ordered the first rocket from Jeff Bezos’s company, Blue Origin. We are moving as fast as we can—because we are not the only company that has seen the promise of LEO. SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, is very focused on building its own constellation. So is Amazon. It will be a bit of a race to capture this opportunity, and Telesat is right there.