WASHINGTON — Telesat plans to use an 85 million Canadian dollar ($64.7 million) investment by the government of Canada on the first dozen satellites of its low Earth orbit broadband constellation as part of a research and development-intensive early deployment phase. 

A separate 600 million Canadian dollar commitment will subsidize satellite capacity for Canadian buyers once the constellation is operational, Dan Goldberg, Telesat’s chief executive, said during an earnings call. 

Telesat has yet to announce who will build the satellites, but has been working with Airbus Defence and Space and a consortium formed by Maxar Technologies and Thales Alenia Space on designing the constellation. A downselect is expected by year’s end. 

The Canadian government announced its financial support for Telesat LEO July 24, saying it views the constellation of 298 satellites as the only means to bring internet to some of its most rural citizens. Telesat has indicated the satellites will be larger than OneWeb’s, which weigh 150 kilograms, but has not given an exact weight. 

Telesat is planning a “very significant R&D” process with its early satellites that the government’s 85 million Canadian dollar investment will partly offset, Goldberg said Aug. 1. 

“Part of the development phase is just launching the first, call it dozen satellites or so,” he said. “These will be the same satellites that will occupy the whole constellation, but those first ones we will launch and rigorously test, and put through all the paces before we launch the hundreds of others.”

Telesat has had one prototype satellite in orbit from Airbus company Surrey Satellite Technology Limited since January 2018. A second prototype from Maxar Technologies and University of Toronto’s Space Flight Laboratory was lost during a November 2017 Soyuz failure.

Telesat plans to spend 215 million Canadian dollars on R&D over the next five years, the company said July 24. 

Goldberg said the Canadian government and Telesat are still finalizing the terms of the 600 million Canadian dollar memorandum of understanding, but the plans call for Telesat to create a bandwidth pool available at a discount to domestic internet service providers and other customers. 

That pool of bandwidth will likely be “multiple gigabits,” Goldberg said, but won’t constitute all the constellation’s Canadian capacity. 

The Canadian government plans to spend the 600 million Canadian dollars over 10 years. Goldberg said Telesat anticipates making another 600 million Canadian dollars from companies buying that discounted capacity. 

“We will price that pool of capacity at a very attractive rate,” Goldberg said. “We fully expect that telcos, [internet service providers], maybe even some municipal governments and others will take that capacity up, we think pretty quickly. My own expectation is that it will probably all get taken up pre-launch.”

Telesat plans to start partial service with the constellation in 2022 using around 200 satellites, with full service in 2023 at 300 satellites. Goldberg said the company plans to select a manufacturer by the end of this year. 

Telesat LEO is designed as a Ka-band system operating in a 1,000-kilometer orbit. 

Goldberg, speaking July 31 on Financial Post’s “Down to Business” podcast, said that the constellation can reach global coverage with a minimum of 72 satellites. 

Only recently have the technologies become available to make a LEO broadband constellation feasible, Goldberg said on the podcast. He listed low-cost launch (citing SpaceX and Blue Origin), affordable inter-satellite links and advances in phased array antennas for spacecraft and ground terminals as the top three enabling technologies. 

On both the earnings call and podcast Goldberg declined to quantity the overall cost of Telesat LEO beyond that it will be a multi-billion dollar investment.

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...