Canada’s LEO constellation fund draws interest from Telesat, MDA

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This story was updated July 6 to correct Michel Forest’s name and to note that Telesat now expects its LEO constellation to enter service in 2022, not 2021. An earlier version of this story said Telesat intends to request CA$20 million from Canada’s Strategic Innovation Fund. It should have said CA$20 million is the amount Ontario has pledged to Telesat’s LEO constellation.

OTTAWA, Ontario — Telesat and MDA will be requesting money from the Canadian government’s new special fund to finance low-Earth-orbit satellite systems, officials from both companies say.

Michel Forest, director of engineering with Telesat, confirmed the satellite fleet operator’s interest in the 100 million Canadian dollar ($80 million) Strategic Innovation Fund that Canada established this year to support rural broadband and LEO satellite projects.

Mike Greenley, group president of MDA, said that the Maxar Technologies-owned company will request some of the funding as well but has not yet determined how much it will seek. “We’re certainly looking at that fund because we are doing R&D in advancement of LEO satellite technologies,” Greenley told Space News.

In Telesat’s case, their request for federal funding will be in addition to the investment of up to CA$20 million thr Government of Ontario included in its 2018 budget to  support Telesat’s LEO satellite constellation, now in development.

Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced the Strategic Innovation Fund in the 2018 Canadian government budget released Feb. 27. The Canadian government wants to support the development of low-Earth-orbit satellites that can bring internet services to rural parts of the country.

“Networks of LEO satellites have the potential to provide Canadians living in rural and remote areas with significantly improved access to Internet and wireless services at more affordable prices,” Morneau’s budget document noted. “LEO satellites, situated closer to the surface of the Earth than traditional higher orbit satellites, can receive and transmit data with significantly improved response times, speeding up data services, while maintaining the benefits of satellite technology, including the ability to provide Internet across challenging landscapes at much lower costs than fiber-optic technology.”

The CA$100 million will be spent over the next five years. Canada will use the money on projects that are directly related to LEO satellites and next-generation rural broadband, government officials said. The government also sees the initiative as creating high-technology jobs and potential export opportunities for Canadian firms.

Telesat has one demonstration satellite already in orbit as it prepares for a full constellation of 120 such spacecraft. The demonstration satellite was launched Jan. 12 on India’s PSLV rocket. The constellation is expected to enter service in 2022, according to Telesat spokesman Gerald Nagler.

Telesat says its LEO system is optimized to deliver enterprise-grade connectivity services and broadband access to the internet. One of the markets for the service is in bringing the internet to remote communities, it added. Forest said as an example, Telesat has a long history of bringing connectivity to remote communities in Canada’s Arctic.

Greenley said MDA is under contract for the OneWeb 900-satellite LEO constellation to produce the antennas for those spacecraft. That will involve new product development as well as looking at using artificial intelligence capabilities in the assembly process, he added.

“As we talk to multiple LEO constellation projects we’re constantly looking for what we have to do to make sure we would be a great provider of LEO communications satellite components,” Greenley said.

MDA, he noted, is also interested in opportunities on the Telesat LEO constellation.

Morneau didn’t get into specific details on how the funds would be dispersed and government officials did not provide details on how the money can be accessed by firms or research facilities.

Greenley suggested the money could be accessed through the Canadian government’s Strategic Innovation Fund, which was launched July 2017. The program is to encourage R&D that will accelerate technology transfer and help grow Canadian firms.

Last year the Canadian government outlined a streamlined licensing framework that would support the deployment of next-generation satellites. That action would allow more satellite-based providers to enter the market and extend high-speed internet services to Canadians in rural and remote communities across the country, Navdeep Bains, Canada’s minister of innovation, science and economic development pointed out at the Canadian Telecom Summit in June 2017.