LEO momentum builds with Eutelsat smallsat purchase, Optus-Telesat partnership

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WASHINGTON — In a surprise shift, Eutelsat Communications, a staunch defender of geostationary satellites as the way forward, on March 8 said it is buying a low Earth orbit (LEO) demonstration nanosatellite.

Another new entrant to LEO, Australia- and New Zealand-focused Optus Satellite is joining Canadian fleet operator Telesat in testing its LEO prototype satellite that launched in January.

Paris-based Eutelsat and Optus bring to eight the number of geostationary satellite operators that are openly investing in, building, or partnering with non-geostationary satellite ventures, joining Intelsat, SES, Telesat, Sky Perfect Jsat, Hughes, and Thuraya.

Eutelsat and Optus are entering the LEO domain at opposite ends, however.

Eutelsat’s nanosatellite, to be built by Terran Orbital subsidiary Tyvak International, is a narrowband system to evaluate the pros and cons of LEO for connecting low-power, low-data devices in the emerging “Internet of Things” space. Optus is participating in Telesat LEO tests to assess high-speed broadband connectivity for corporate and government customers that demand lots of bandwidth.

Eutelsat’s conversion to a LEO believer

Eutelsat’s specific emphasis on IoT explains why the company, which has advocated for the strengths of geostationary orbits since smallsat LEO internet startup OneWeb appeared in 2015, would suddenly change tunes.

Driving Eutelsat’s narrowband gambit is its investment and partnership with French IoT pioneer Sigfox, a company building a global network for connecting all kinds of devices and sensors back to the internet. In 2015, Eutelsat chipped in to Sigfox’s $115 million capital raise — then the largest venture capital round in French history.

“[LEO] is particularly well-suited to narrowband connectivity for objects,” Eutelsat said in a March 8 statement. “It offers a satellite link anywhere in the world, is complementary to terrestrial IoT networks, and does not impact the cost or the energy consumption of the objects.”

Eutelsat is alone among its peer-competitors Intelsat, SES and Telesat, all of which also have global satellite coverage, in focusing on LEO for narrowband instead of broadband. Cubesat narrowband startups like Kepler Communications and Fleet are generally seen more as competitors for mobile satellite services (MSS) providers whose businesses of selling satellite phones and portable internet devices don’t overlap much with fixed satellite services operators (though that divide is disappearing as both types of operators pursue aviation and maritime connectivity). To brace against this threat, MSS LEO operator Iridium partnered with cubesat constellation startup Hyber, formerly Magnitude Space. GEO MSS operator Thuraya similarly partnered with Astrocast, formerly Else, to hedge against cannibalization from low-cost cubesat constellations.

Eutelsat is calling its LEO program “ELO,” or Eutelsat LEO for Objects. The experimental nanosat will operate in a sun-synchronous orbit between 500 and 600 kilometers, and link to a ground station in Norway. The company did not indicate whether a larger constellation will follow the experiment.

Sigfox agreed to help test the satellite in ISM frequency bands — spectrum reserved for Industrial, Scientific and Medical fields — and on processing data collected from objects. Eutelsat said it will test the satellite on other frequencies as well.

Optus: Telesat LEO could influence our next-gen satellite system

Singapore-based Optus said March 8 that joining Telesat’s test campaign will enable the company to “assess the role Telesat LEO can play in Optus’ next-generation satellite networks.”

Two of the satellites in Optus’s five-satellite fleet are more than 10 years into their 15-year design lives, meaning replacement decisions will need to be made soon.

Telesat is months away from selecting a manufacturer for its constellation of 120 small satellites designed to collectively bring several terabits of high-speed global connectivity in 2021.

Optus and Telesat said they will “explore a longer-term joint services and market development plan, specific to Telesat’s LEO initiative, for Optus’ customer segments and regions of interest.”

Paul Sheridan, vice president of Optus Satellite, said Optus’s early evaluation of Telesat LEO has convinced the company that the new constellation “has the potential to become a core component in Optus’ future infrastructure.”

“We are looking forward to starting trials on Telesat’s Phase 1 LEO satellite and demonstrating to our customers the exciting future of satellite delivered services,” he said in a statement.

Telesat is still raising the orbit of its prototype satellite and performing in-orbit commissioning before starting service testing this month or in April. Optus said it will conduct tests at its Belrose, Australia teleport and other locations.