WASHINGTON — SES proposed a low Earth orbit constellation to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission that, if built, would make the company an operator of satellites in low, medium and geostationary orbits. 

Luxembourg-based SES on May 26 asked the FCC to grant U.S. market access for a constellation of 36 LEO satellites that would provide high data rate communications for internet-of-things devices and serve as a relay network for other digital traffic. 

SES also asked for market access rights for an additional 34 satellites it would add to the O3b broadband constellation it has already deployed in medium Earth orbit. 

An SES foray into LEO?

SES operates around 50 satellites in geostationary orbits 36,000 kilometers above the equator, plus 20 O3b satellites in medium Earth orbits 8,000 kilometers above the Earth. The company has touted having both MEO and GEO as a competitive advantage that enables optimal routing of customer traffic based on speed and coverage requirements. 

SES CEO Steve Collar expressed an openness to LEO in March, describing SES as building an “integrated, cloud-scale network” in Ka-band with multiple orbits.

“What multi-orbit does is it allows you to put the right customer in the right place in the network and takes us away from this religion between ‘is it MEO or GEO or LEO?’ I think, for us at least, it will be a mix. It will be integrated, and most of the time customers won’t know what they are on,” Collar said during the Satellite 2020 conference. 

The LEO constellation SES described to the FCC would use Ka-band frequencies, the same as the operator’s O3b satellites in MEO and a few of its GEO satellites. The LEO constellation would operate in a 507-kilometer orbit and use radio-frequency links to transmit to satellites in MEO and GEO. 

SES’s FCC filing does not represent a commitment to build a LEO constellation. The company was responding to an FCC call for information from satellite operators, current or prospective, that aim to provide U.S. communications services with non-geosynchronous constellations operating in certain Ku- and Ka-band frequencies. OneWeb used the FCC’s call to file a proposal for a 48,000-satellite constellation even though it is in bankruptcy, and Viasat used the round to file a 300-satellite constellation it might build if it wins federal broadband subsidies

In total, nine companies responded to the FCC’s May 26 deadline with new constellations or constellation expansions under consideration. EOS Defense Systems, Kepler Communications, Telesat, SpaceX, Mangata Networks, and New Spectrum Satellite all filed in addition to OneWeb, SES and Viasat. 

If SES does deploy a LEO constellation focused on the internet-of-things market, it would follow Eutelsat and EchoStar as veteran geostationary satellite operators developing LEO IoT constellations. More than a dozen startups, such as Kepler, Fleet and Astrocast, are also deploying LEO IoT constellations, many having started their businesses before incumbent GEO operators began aggressively eying the same market. 

Doubling down on MEO

Meanwhile, SES told the FCC the purpose of its new MEO filing is to prepare for a third generation of O3b satellites, which would follow the upcoming O3b mPower satellites. If approved, SES would have market access rights for 76 MEO satellites, 20 of which have already launched. 

SES has seven O3b mPower satellites under construction with Boeing and slated to launch in 2021 on two SpaceX Falcon 9 missions. SES has not said how many mPower satellites it will order and launch before starting a third-generation O3b network. The company said in 2018 that FCC approvals it received that year enable it to triple the size of the mPower fleet.

For its third-generation O3b network, SES said it wants to operate 10 satellites in an equatorial MEO orbit. Another 24 satellites would operate in inclined MEO orbits, and would use a smaller platform that “allows for more satellites to fit within available launchers,” SES said. 

The proposed MEO satellites would also have inter-satellite links to enable communications between spacecraft in different orbits. 

Caleb Henry is a former SpaceNews staff writer covering satellites, telecom and launch. He previously worked for Via Satellite and NewSpace Global.He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science along with a minor in astronomy from...