The government should prioritize LEO satellite broadband

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks in the House of Commons on April 20, 2020. Credit: CPAC.

This past weekend Canadian federal parties worked out an agreement for in-person and virtual meetings of the House of Commons.

One issue brought up by the Conservatives was that virtual sittings could be unfair to rural Members of Parliament who don’t have broadband internet access. It’s a fair point and raises an issue the government should address.

While the government has been supportive of rural broadband initiatives, now is the time to step up and do more. The coronavirus COVID-19 has changed the global equation in so many areas that we still don’t know the long term effects it will have.

The pandemic has shown us how important communication is. We now have daily federal and provincial news conferences and government departments updating websites with relevant information for the public. Other organizations and businesses are using the Internet more than ever to provide information and sell goods like groceries. But access to these updates and services doesn’t reach everyone.

Internet Service Providers have been trying to help their customers by increasing data limits. SpaceQ recorded a podcast with someone last week who lives in a rural area. Because other family members need access to the Internet, they prioritize access based on need so as to not impair the limited connection they have. The person we did the podcast with had to drive 15 minutes to a nearby town for good mobile coverage to record the podcast.

LEO satellite broadband

The government has made investments in improving rural and remote broadband internet including funding to Telesat who want to build a satellite constellation in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The LEO satellite broadband service would be used by consumers and government customers. The constellation appears to be moving forward, albeit slowly, and still needs final approval by their board. With the current economic outlook, Telesat could further delay or even shelve the development of the constellation.

The government provided Telesat with $85 million from the Strategic Innovation Fund last year. They also signed a memorandum of understanding whereby the government would become a customer, pledging $600 million over 10 years should the two sides come to an agreement.

It’s time for the government to do more. The Strategic Innovation Fund provides funding for innovative technologies the government sees as having strong potential to be beneficial to Canadians. The program in essence picks winners. It’s a government program that says, we’re making an investment in this company because it’s likely to succeed.

Having already made the calculation that Telesat’s LEO Satellite Constellation was worth the initial investment, the government should now step up again in some way to get this project fast-tracked. It’s an investment that will benefit Canadians.

About Marc Boucher

Marc Boucher
Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactive Inc. Boucher has 20 years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 28 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

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    I applaud SpaceQ, Marc Boucher, and the Government of Canada for their support of the Canadian Space and Satellite Industries – – and especially for their decade-long support of rural broadband through Industry Canada, and more recently CRTC-led, programs. Several of these initiatives have promoted and subsidized use of geostationary satellites to enable backhaul of internet data/capacity to remote communities. At issue now is several problems with the premise of promoting LEO satellite broadband, including; unfair subsidies, a poor economical and technical solution, and an untimely provision of services. Government subsidies are a mixed blessing – great for the recipient, but not good for open market solution development and competition. LEO satellite constellations are the recent darlings of the ‘new-space’ industry, touting low-latency broadband for the masses. The underlying problems with LEO business plans are clear from the 20-year trail of wrecked investments – – most recently LEOSat and OneWeb, who filed for bankruptcy after spending $4B of investor funding. LEO constellations suffer high $/bit capacity costs – – 20 times higher than HTS GEO satellite programs such as Hughes Jupiter, or ViaSat-3. Additionally LEO constellations suffer from two other economic and technical hurdles that GEO satellites do not have – namely an operational lifetime that is one-third of GEO – and the need for LEO systems to utilize tracking antennas (electronic or mechanical) to track satellites in view for 4-5 minutes per pass. Current LEO antennas cost $1000+, which puts their use for broadband service for the masses out of practical reach (in comparison a GEO antenna is sub-$100). Finally, the LEO projects proposed require hundreds of satellites to be manufactured and launched in dozens of rockets – a project which will take 3-4 years to become a reality, once funding and manufacturers are found.
    In conclusion – if rural broadband is the goal, GEO programs are cheaper, faster and better than LEO. Subsidies to one vendor are undesirable. Let’s have the GOC put a $200 home broadband rebate in place – and let’s have the best technology or solution be the winner chosen by consumers !!! Not our tax dollars subsidizing LEO – the poorest technical and economic solution.

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