High Speed Internet In The Far North? New $300M Satellite Pledge Makes Big Promises

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In a universe increasingly crowded with satellites, Canada’s Telesat is getting ready to launch its own powerful competitor fleet to SpaceX, OneWeb and other companies.

The company announced a memorandum of understanding with the Canadian province of Quebec that could see about $318 million USD ($400 million Canadian) in provincial monies pour into a set of powerful data-bearing satellites known as Lightspeed, targeted to rural communities in the far north.

Quebec plans to offer $200 million CAD in preferred equity and $200 million CAD in loans, both of which will be finalized in a few months. For Quebec, it’s an opportunity to diversify its traditional strength in aviation — which has seen profits plunge this past year due to the pandemic — into the closely related field of aerospace, as Telesat promises benefits from the money spent. The value of Telesat’s Lightspeed business in Quebec is expected to reach nearly $1.3 billion USD ($1.6 billion CAD) through direct spending and the Lightspeed manufacturing and operations supply chain.

“The pandemic will have an ongoing impact on aircraft construction, and this is the ideal time to accelerate the pace of satellite development, a new and promising field for the aerospace industry,” said Quebec premier François Legault in a statement.

Canada is a big country with a relatively small population, a population that generally becomes even more scattered into small towns at latitudes above 50 or 55 degrees north. The hope is to bring more constant connectivity to northern communities who traditionally, are many years behind their southern counterparts in terms of Internet access. The potential benefits are vast to northerners, ranging from better business opportunities to faster connections with doctors in the south (making it easier to access health care).

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Other companies will receive a lift from the Lightspeed network. Telesat selected the huge Canadian space player MDA (best known for the Canadarm robotic arms and Radarsat satellites) to make phased array antennas designed to “beam hop” from satellite to satellite, an ability which will give the most powerful connection possible as the machines pass high above northern communities.

The planned prime contractor for Lightspeed, Thales Alenia Space, is in “advanced discussions” with the Canadian company for an assembly, integration and testing facility in Quebec that will pump out about one completed satellite a day. Discussions with potential local manufacturing partners are also ongoing, as usually such satellites require a big chain of suppliers for individual components.

Lightspeed is also getting hefty investment from the Canadian government, which offered the network about $475 million USD ($600 million CAD) in November 2020 to subsidize access to northern communities, which include Indigenous peoples. The Canadian government spending is planned over 10 years.

The Lightspeed network of 300 satellites is much smaller than some international competitors, but its advantage will be coverage of Canada along with higher low Earth orbit tracks that will not be too disruptive to astronomy observations. SpaceX’s Starlink series, which is also available via satellite dishes in Canada, has been facing ongoing criticism for potentially disrupting astronomy observations forever due to its bright satellites, which could number in the tens of thousands when the constellation is complete. (The company has pledged to dim reflections off the satellite sides, but concerns remain.)

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