Megaconstellation ventures cautious about deployment milestones

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This article originally appeared in the May 20, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Companies planning large constellations of broadband satellites want regulators to be careful not to undercut their business plans by introducing strict deployment milestones for keeping their full spectrum rights.

Regulators are poised to debate, and if consensus is reached, introduce deadlines for megaconstellations to have percentages of their satellites in orbit by explicit dates or risk having their spectrum priority status limited to the number launched. The purpose of the milestones is to prevent opportunists from hogging spectrum by launching just one satellite to meet the International Telecommunication Union’s so-called bring into use rules.

Telesat and LeoSat, two companies working with manufacturing partners to finalize low Earth orbit broadband constellation designs, say milestones that are too strict could have the unwanted effect of stymieing businesses that are genuinely striving to launch satellites.

LeoSat CEO Mark Rigolle, whose company is working on a constellation of 84 to 108 satellites, outlined this doomsday scenario:

“The horror story could be potentially that someone in good faith raises a few billion [dollars], is building satellites, finishes the first batch, launches it and there’s a generic flaw. There’s something not working, so everything built on the ground needs to be reworked, sent back to the factory and your whole production chain stops, and because of that you miss a milestone. Are they then going to reduce the size of your total constellation mathematically, as implied in these rules? Or would there be some give and take?

“To just apply the rule blindly and mathematically…could ruin some business cases, which is bad for the ability to raise funding,” he added.

Erwin Hudson, vice president of Telesat LEO, said many questions remain about the milestones, including, importantly, when the clock starts.

“I think for people that are clearly moving forward, spending real money progressing towards building satellites, we need to have milestones that are quite reasonable,” he said.

Telesat is planning a constellation of 300 satellites, and anticipates choosing a manufacturer this year. Hudson said Telesat is optimistic about being able to meet deployment milestones, but is hoping whatever regulators select is not too stringent. “Certainly more time is better,” he said.