Telesat LEO manufacturing decision bumped to 2020

by

WASHINGTON — Telesat Canada will likely choose the winner of a now three-way race to build its low Earth orbit broadband constellation in the first few months of 2020 instead of this year, CEO Dan Goldberg said Nov. 5. 

Goldberg, in an earnings call, said Telesat still anticipates having 200 satellites orbiting in 2022 and 300 satellites in 2023 despite taking longer than expected to choose a manufacturer. 

Telesat had anticipated choosing between Airbus Defence and Space and a team formed by Maxar Technologies and Thales Alenia Space by the end of this year. But that was before Maxar Technologies and Thales Alenia Space split, opting to compete separately for a contract worth an estimated $3 billion. 

Goldberg did not mention the breakup of the Maxar-Thales Alenia team when acknowledging Telesat’s selection is now “probably more likely Q1 next year” instead of in 2019. 

Choosing the right orbit

Goldberg said Telesat doesn’t view itself as locked into LEO, and will consider future satellites and their orbits on a case-by-case basis. Roughly half of Telesat’s revenue comes from television broadcasting, which wouldn’t benefit from LEO, he said. 

Some of Telesat’s internet-connectivity customers may also favor geostationary orbit, since they already have infrastructure that supports linking with the company’s current fleet of 16 geostationary satellites, Goldberg said. That same ground infrastructure supports C- and Ku-band frequencies, while Telesat LEO is being designed as a Ka-band system, which could add to a preference for GEO, he said. 

Telesat believes its LEO constellation will be a “very compelling solution” for its broadband connectivity customers, he said, but he declined to estimate how long it will take for them to shift from GEO to LEO. 

“I think that over time there will be a transition for enterprise customers from their existing networks over to LEO. How long that will take is a little bit hard to say at this point in time,” he said. 

Telesat is also interested in new polar satellite communications system that the Canadian government is considering. Goldberg said the Canadian government appears to have momentum around developing a system of polar-orbiting satellites in highly inclined orbits that would provide X-band, ultra-high-frequency and military-grade Ka-band connectivity over the arctic. 

Canada has studied various arctic communications systems, such as the two satellite Polar Communication and Weather system, in the early 2010s, but hasn’t moved forward with one

Goldberg said the Canadian government has issued two requests for information about a new system called Enhanced Satellite Communications Polar. A request for proposals is anticipated soon, he said. 

“We think we and our partners are well positioned for it,” he said. 

Norway’s state-run company Space Norway in July selected Northrop Grumman to build two highly elliptical orbit satellites that the Norwegian military will use, along with the U.S. military and British commercial operator Inmarsat. Goldberg said Canada is interested in having international partners on the Enhanced Satellite Communications Polar system as well. 

Telesat revenue up, but profits down

Telesat reported 237 million Canadian dollars ($179.3 million) in revenue for the months of July, August and September, up 4% from the same time last year. 

The company reported a net loss, however, of 123 million Canadian dollars, in contrast to a profit of 117 million Canadian dollars for the same quarter in 2018. 

Telesat said the $240 million swing was due to non-cash losses on financial instruments and the impact of foreign-exchange rates when translating its U.S. dollar-denominated debt into Canadian dollars. 

Goldberg said Shaw Direct, a Telesat customer, also substantially reduced its Ku-band capacity lease on the company’s Anik-F1R satellite. 

Shaw was using the capacity for television broadcasting, but needed less after upgrading its ground infrastructure with better signal compression technology, Goldberg said. 

Anik-F1R has just two to three years of service left, based on current operations, but might be extended by inclining the satellite’s orbit so it needs less fuel for station keeping, Goldberg said. Telesat is working on reselling the capacity previously used by Shaw, he said. 

Goldberg said Anik-F1R could still serve aviation and maritime customers in an inclined orbit, since those markets use tracking antennas that can follow the satellite as it sways in the sky. The satellite would no longer be useful for direct-to-home television, since those antennas would lose its signal from an inclined orbit.