Elon and Jeff are brilliant ! Surely THEY can solve our broadband issues.

Two dishes got married; the ceremony was meh but the reception was incredible.

Much has happened since we last visited the wacky world of low earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations and their use in providing improved broadband service to Canada’s rural and remote users. This past Tuesday, July 21, all of Iqaluit, the capital of the Territory of Nunavut was without communication services ; no Internet, no landline, no cell service, no cable TV – simply because it was raining ! In a first world country like Canada this is unacceptable. We need better broadband service in Canada’s North NOW.

There is a rash of breathless newspaper stories in the mainstream media touting LEO service as arriving soon to resolve our remote and rural broadband issues. I wrote about it before here, that Elon Musk is not coming to save us any time soon. I also wrote about the Chapter 11 bankruptcy of the early leader to provide LEO service to the Arctic, OneWeb, here. So where do we stand now on July 27, 2020 ?

Well on July 10, the US bankruptcy court of the Southern District of New York (SDNY) approved a joint $1 billion bid for OneWeb by Britain and Bharti Airtel. The UK government and Bharti Global, an arm of Bharti Enterprises, which part owns India’s Airtel, will each have roughly 45 per cent of OneWeb. The existing secured creditors, including SoftBank of Japan, OneWeb’s former biggest shareholder, will own the balance.

But the landscape has changed from before OneWeb’s descent into Chapter 11 in the spring. OneWeb’s original mission was to “connect the unconnected “ ; ie it wanted to provide broadband service to the millions of people around the world that do not have access to the Internet. The UK has invested $500M into OneWeb for other strategic reasons, mainly to mitigate the effects of Brexit on British industry. I sure hope they realize that it is going to cost them more, much more and that $500M was just the table stakes to play in the LEO game.

After Brexit, the UK would have been locked out of the EU’s Galileo mission. Its aerospace industry would have lost work and technology to the EU and the USA and it would have fallen behind. Investing in OneWeb, and taking the “golden share” that lets it decide who gets access to the network will let it be a cornerstone of new industrial policy for Britain. Jolly good show.

But a $1 billion investment is just the starting point, OneWeb will need to raise at least $1B if not more to fully fund the company’s plans. So to mitigate, the mission will be changed from targeting unserved consumers to one targeting governments and commercial sectors to generate revenue quickly. These use cases are more in sync with what Telesat is proposing to do in selling wholesale connectivity to telcos and ISPs, starting with the Arctic. The UK also wants to develop other use cases such as a new navigation offering different from GPS or Galileo that it could then sell to its Five Eyes partners as an adjunct to GPS. That requires adapting and redesigning the satellites to the new missions.

The UK also wants to use this transaction bring more aerospace manufacturing back to Britain. The current OneWeb satellites were made in Florida in a joint venture with Airbus. Some or all of this manufacturing is expected to move to the UK.

The transaction to close the deal to buy OneWeb from Chapter 11 is expected to close in Q4 2020. Thus the former timeline of providing service in the Arctic by late 2020 is out of reach, 2021 will be too aggressive and 2022 is more realistic. All of the changes wrought by the new ownership and new mandates have created issues and decisions that need to be navigated; technical, financial as well as political which all bring delays to actually launching services.

Meanwhile, the other proposed LEO constellations have not been idle.

Amazon’s Project Kuiper has won the backing of Ajit Pai, the Chairman of the FCC who is backing approval of the venture.

SpaceX’s StarLink venture has just begun to raise more funding to continue launching service. CNBC has reported that it is in talks to raise $500M to $1B funding at a valuation of $44B (July 23) . SpaceX has also been not so quietly signing up beta customers in Canada and the USA to test trial service of its direct-to-consumer internet service late this year.

That leaves Canada’s Telesat. Telesat was also a bidder for OneWeb during its Chapter 11 bankruptcy. That bid came out of the blue, and we still don’t know what motivated Telesat to launch the bid, nor who financed the deposit. Telesat has yet to choose a manufacturer for its satellites with apparently an announcement due any moment, perhaps at their Q2 results conference call on July 30. The biggest question mark remains around the financing of the project.

In July 2019, Telesat received $85M CDN from the Federal Government’s Strategic Innovation Fund. Once the constellation is in service, they have a commitment from the Feds to purchase $600M CDN in services over 10 years. That still leaves a huge question of how Telesat plans to finance the enormous capex to launch the LEO constellation before it sees any revenue. As we saw with OneWeb, there are not many investors around that are willing to sign the large cheques needed to finance such risky ventures. Even Softbank (funders of Uber and WeWork) balked at additional funding for OneWeb while they were the largest shareholder and creditor. Such investors need to be able to keep signing large cheques to keep funding capex. (are you paying attention Boris?)

Telesat’s current shareholders are Loral Space & Communications, a NY based holding company and Canada’s Public Sector Pension investment Boards (PSP). I am not sure either are up to the task of financing such a risky venture. Loral recently paid a special dividend of $5.50/share on May 28, 2020 distributing to shareholders funds it had received from Telesat. Not the kind of action you would expect to see from a party planning to underwrite billions of capex expenditures. The PSP is a pension fund that historically prefers ventures that provide stable cash flows at predictable rates, which is what Telesat’s legacy business provided. LEO constellations are highly speculative and very risky, the exact opposite of what the pension plan for Canada’s public sector workers want to see done with their retirement funds.

From my personal perspective (ie I am guessing) I can see a strategic buyer taking control of Telesat from its current owners and funding the LEO constellation. That buyer would be Amazon and its Project Kuiper.

Amazon’s strengths are its financial muscle and long term vision. Amazon can raise funds cheaper than most nation states. Amazon may covet some of Telesat’s strategic assets such as its protected spectrum rights from the ITU and its substantial base of satellite technology and experience. Both of those would give them a significant advantage over Starlink. Telesat and Amazon have a relationship already as Telesat signed a launch contract with Blue Origin, another of Jeff Bezos’s companies for multiple launch missions in January, 2019.

Amazon could also introduce another use case for the LEO sats that no other strategic buyer could. They could use the service internally to connect their global network of AWS data centres. In essence, it could be a part of the connectivity portion of their AWS cloud. Potentially at a lower latency than some sub-sea fiber cables. That use case may be appealing on its own.

It would give Loral and PSP gracious exits and Jeff Bezos a competitive advantage against OneWeb who will be be busy sorting out their new ownership and new mandates over the next two quarters and let Project Kuiper keep pace with Elon Musk’s Starlink as it beta trials consumer service this winter.

Never underestimate the power of bragging rights between billionaires.

We shall continue to watch this sector closely. My core message remains, do not expect LEO satellite constellations to be the saviour of Canada’s remote and rural broadband issues any time soon. We must continue to expand our network of fiber optic cables, including Arctic sub-sea cables.

Elon is not coming to rescue Canada’s remote broadband

Elon Musk and StarLink
Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and the StarLink constellation

The telecom press in Canada has been gushing over the news that Elon Musk and his company SpaceX has visions of coming to Canada to provide super-fast Internet service to rural and remote Canadians via their StarLink LEO (low Earth orbit) satellite constellation.

Please take a step back. Pause. Take a deep breath. Just stop it.

This is not imminent, it may never happen. In fact it probably will never happen.

First off, SpaceX only applied for a BITS licence. BITS is Basic International Telecom Service. AurorA has a BITS licence (in fact I believe AurorA had the first BITS licence provided to a non-facilities based carrier). This does not provide StarLink the spectrum required to operate in Canada. OneWeb had licensed Canadian spectrum (through 1021823 B.C. Ltd.) and so does Telesat for their proposed LEO constellation. SpaceX hasn’t yet applied for a Canadian spectrum licence (as far as I know).

The model of “connecting the unconnected”, providing broadband Internet service to the 3.5 billion people in the world that don’t have it has been around for decades. I remember the old Teledesic and Skybridge proposals, ICO, Iridium and GlobalStar who all went bankrupt. Iridium emerged from Chapter 11 eventually after a huge amount of drama (see my review of a great book on Iridium). More recently OneWeb who had already launched 74 satellites went bankrupt in March (read here) and before that LEOSat last November. As an aside, even Intelsat went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May.

Elon’s SpaceX has 362 satellites in orbit, but to actually provide service their plans call for 4,000 satellites just in the first phase deployment. To do this takes money; SpaceX need billions, and soon, to satisfy its high cash burn rate. It’s not making near enough revenue launching satellites (and astronauts) from others to cover the costs of it unpaid Starlink launches. This is also why they are desperately trying to be included in the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction to get a piece of up to $16B in funding, even though they cant demonstrate that they can actually provide service (and may be fudging the latency numbers, hard to prove since you cant actually test it) !

There are very few investors that can write the cheques big enough to fund an LEO sat constellation. Even large investors like Softbank balked at committing additional risk capital to a single investment like OneWeb. The history of bankrupt constellations would bear that out. COVID-19 has made raising money for risky ventures even harder. Building the business case is difficult; it costs too much money to make money, even for a SpaceX that has re-invented rockets and dropped the price of launching satellites.

LEO satellite constellations, especially using small nano satellites can provide great services for many use cases; Earth observation, low data rate iOT or M2M, remote asset tracking, weather data and even imaging. GEO sats can provide great high throughput required for TV and telecommunications, but they provide poor connectivity at Northern latitudes like Canada’s Arctic. The use case of providing broadband Internet for the unconnected is just not suited for LEO.

To connect those 3.5 billion people to the Internet requires not only the huge investment in satellites and ground infrastructure (plus legal/regulatory, and non-trivial insurance costs) but also an inexpensive antenna/receiver for the consumer to be able to plug in themselves to access the service. Given that the terminals will be in remote areas they will need to be low power usage. By definition those places are off the grid. Since the LEO sats move quickly across the sky, the tracking antenna must be sophisticated, like a electronic phased array. No one has yet to produce such a low-cost, low power terminal device.

When the constellation is finally setup, the satellites would cover the entirety of the Earth’s surface. Ninety percent of the time this would be over open water, frozen tundra, wilderness and deserts devoid of people. So a business case dependent on a use case like consumer broadband would not generate revenue 90% of the time ! In areas like Africa or the Amazon, the surface is covered by jungle. The signal won’t penetrate through thick vegetation, limiting its usefulness. Finally, how much would people actually pay to use the service ? Has Elon gone out and talked to the people in emerging markets and asked them what they need and what they can afford ? What about when that area finally gets served via a cable or fixed wireless that can provide service for an order of magnitude less ? Eventually even Nunavut will get service by one or more sub-sea fiber optic cables.

So where exactly are the customers going to come from to justify the immense capital cost of building the constellation ?

The other problem that LEO sat constellations have to solve before we actually see this service launched is the one that they create themselves by launching thousands of satellites to do so. Space debris. Low Earth orbit is already crowded with dysfunctional satellites and space debris. What happens if, no when, a StarLink satellite malfunctions or becomes derelict or collides with other satellites or space debris. The attraction of low cost sats is that they are made with commercial off-the shelf components for a fraction of what traditional GEO sats cost. But given their disposability we are going to have a huge increase in space junk.

Without strict regulatory oversight (and who would be responsible for this in space ?) and the non-zero chance of failures and malfunctions, we could see a runaway feedback loop creating tons of space debris, called the Kessler syndrome. These concerns and liabilities have still not been fully addressed for the large volume LEO constellations.

Until StarLink (or any other LEO Sat constellation) actually builds and operates a constellation without going bankrupt, solves the physics of providing low cost-low power consumer terminal equipment and can guarantee they won’t destroy low Earth orbit with space debris for succeeding generations don’t hold your breath for cheap sat based broadband service in Canada’s rural and remote areas.

Instead of waiting for Elon, Canadians should take control of their own future and build more Arctic fiber optic cables.

Sat Firm OneWeb Files for Bankruptcy

Relax, this is not the Corona Virus – Rather it is OneWeb’s satellite constellation

OneWeb filed for bankruptcy in New York on March 27. OneWeb is one of the biggest names in the Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite business, planning to provide high speed internet to the world by 2021. The news came just days after they successfully launched another 34 satellites into their constellation, bringing the total number up to 74. Now, the future of the constellation is uncertain.


In its news release, OneWeb said it intends to use the bankruptcy proceedings to pursue a sale in order to maximize the value of the company. The company said that it had recently been engaged in “advanced negotiations” to fund the company through the deployment and commercial launch of its constellation, but these negotiations fell through because of the financial and market impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.


The main investors are Softbank Group with 37.41 % equity, followed by Qualcomm with 15.93 %. Other investors include Grupo Salinas and the Government of Rwanda. Softbank is also the major creditor to OneWeb so it has access to all the assets as the senior lender. Perhaps after Chapter 11 OneWeb may be gone but a new “SoftbankWeb” may emerge. Or potential buyers like Amazon or Facebook could emerge. Aside from the satellites and earth stations, OneWeb owns the right to valuable spectrum which could speed up competitors plans. Space Norway and Telesat have LEO plans and thus may be interested buyers.


In the LEO space OneWeb was competing with Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink venture and Jeff Bezos’s Project Kuiper. A previous LEO competitor LEOSat failed in Nov, 2019. Does the bankruptcy of OneWeb mean that these LEO constellation dreams are also doomed ? Billionaires like Musk and Bezos have a lot of money and resources but they still need to raise financing. This combined with the pressure of the COVID19 pandemic on markets could dry up VC and debt financing, especially for something as speculative as LEO constellations. This may be the death knell for all these LEO plans.


I remember when earlier global LEO dreams also failed like Teledesic , Celestri and Globalstar. OneWeb, and the constellations like it, are built similar to a model called Skybridge proposed around the same time as the Iridium constellation was launched over twenty years ago (see my book review here). The idea is to be able to connect the 3.5 billion of people on Earth that aren’t currently online. LEO still have not solved the issue of making low-cost ground terminals that could work in harsh environments like the Arctic and rain-forest jungles with low power requirements that can track moving satellites. IT is doubtful that there is enough revenue in those business models to support the projects. Targeted High throughput GEO satellites can target high population density areas that can provide revenue for satellite Internet much cheaper than LEO’s and use existing relatively inexpensive ground terminal equipment. Serving remote locations has tough economics, even for satellites.


Already there were concerns about the volumes of proposed satellites and their potential for collisions and increases in space debris. Without strict regulatory oversight (and who would be responsible for this in space ?) and the non-zero chance of failures and malfunctions, we could see a runaway feedback loop creating tons of space debris, called the Kessler syndrome. These concerns and liabilities have still not been fully addressed for the large volume LEO constellations.

OneWeb satellite


What does this mean for the Canadian market, specifically broadband service in remote ares and the Arctic ?


OneWeb had been planning to roll out Arctic service first, later this year. They had Canadian spectrum licenses from ISED. Telesat hasn’t even begun construction of their proposed satellites yet, although they have received approval of their spectrum and have the support of the Federal government ($85M from the Strategic Innovation Fund). SpaceX has launched 300 Starlink satellites and is expected to launch another 600 this year. They claim to need 800 satellites in orbit to be able to begin offering broadband Internet. It is unknown whether SpaceX has licensed spectrum from ISED to offer service in Canada. Starlink’s mission is also different from OneWeb one and they may be looking at serving the USA first and concentrating on revenue from there. So nothing imminent.


It is a market segment that I will keep a close eye on. Sadly, I don’t think that LEO satellite provision of broadband Internet to the Arctic and remote Canadian regions is going to happen anytime soon demonstrated by this recent bankruptcy. Fingers crossed that I am wrong.

Exploring Canada’s North


I apologize for the lack of posts recently. Summer vacation and back to school and other events took my focus away from blogging. Now I am ready to dive back into it with renewed vim and vigour !

This year for our family vacation we decided to go North, really North. To the Spectacular Northwest Territories.

So in late August we packed our carry-ons and hopped on an early morning plane from Pearson (we were originally booked on a flight from Waterloo Airport but it was cancelled by WestJet) to Calgary and from there to Yellowknife. One note, at Calgary when we changed planes, on the tarmac you could smell the smoke and see the haze on the horizon from the forest fires. I hope those are all extinguished now. Very sobering to see.

Yellowknife was delightful. As soon as you enter the cosy airport you know you are in the North as you are greeted by a huge statue of a polar bear on the ice, chasing some seals. There are furs and antler prominantly displayed. And very down home, friendly people.

We stayed at an AirBNB condo right on Great Slave Lake that was maybe a seven minute drive from the airport. It was in Old Town, where some of the orginal cabins and shacks are still standing. A lot of things were in easy walking distance; great food at places like the Dancing Moose Cafe, Bullock’s Bistro, The Wildcat Cafe and the North’s only brewpub, the Woodyard Brewhouse where we also got a growler to bring back to our condo. A few streets away was the famous Ragged Ass Road; you can buy replicas of the street sign so please dont steal the real ones !

One of the highlights of that area is the Bush Pilots Monument. It is a local monument honouring the bush pilots of today and yesterday, who helped open up the North to the rest of Canada.The monument sits on top of “The Rock”, a six story rock hill in the centre of Old Town. Once you climb up the hundreds of steps, the view from there is fabulous. And you will usually see a float plane or two or three taking off or landing on Great Slave Lake.

We ventured into downtown a few times (including great meals at Coyote’s Bistro on Franklin, thanks again to the owner Ed But and his staff for taking great care of us) to get groceries and supplies for the room and also to explore. We were able to find the school that my wife attended as well as the house they lived in when they were stationed there. It struck me that there were only six traffic lights in total in the town, and at night they all just flashed yellow !

My youngest daughter is a geophysicist working exploration in the North so she flew in from Whitehosre to spend a day with us and show us around too. Her crew bunkhouse was only a few minutes walk from where we were staying. She brought us to Weaver and Devore,a trading post cum outfitters that has been there since 1936 where you can get true outdoor clothing and gear for working in the North. It was great to see the places she had told us about previously including the colourful houses and the houseboats on the lake.

We also did a lot of outdoor adventuring including some kayaking on the lake (trying to avoid a bush plane !) and drove out about 45 km on the Ingraham Trail to Hidden Lake Territorial Park. There we took about a half-hour hike to Cameron Falls (see the picture at the top of this post). We spent a lot of time exploring the falls, and then crossing over a foot-bridge upstream to the other side to explore there too. A lot of the scenery reminded me of Northern Ontario where I grew up. The old rocks of the Canadian Shield and the bush. The trees up in Yellowknife were much smaller though.

A week in Yellowknife is good for the soul. The pace is slower, the air is cleaner. There is no visual pollution from billboards. The locals are laid back and friendly. Late August was a little early to see the aurora borealis (I LOVE that name !) but if you went later in the fall, or definitely during the winter, the light show would be awe inspiring. I highly recommend making the trip North, especially if you are a fan of the outdoors.

Lastly, I promised I would review telecom. I had no problem getting a strong cellphone signal everywhere I went, including out on the Ingraham Trail. It wasnt always LTE, but the 3G was fine. Our AirBNB had satellite TV and great high speed WiFi internet. We did not stream any movies or Netflix (I brought some downloaded movies on my computer for family entertainment at night) rather than abuse my hosts data plan.

Finally, a big thanks to Curtis Shaw, the President of Northwestel, who I met at this year’s Canadian Telecom Summit who gave me some great tips and restaurant recommendations !

What’s NEXT for Iridium satellite system ?


On July 25, 2018, a Space-X Falcon 9 rocket will launch the seventh Iridium NEXT mission. This second-to-last launch will increase the total number of Iridium NEXT satellites in space to 65. The final launch will will deliver the last 10 satellites for a total of 75 satellites in orbit. In total 81 satellites comprise Iridium NEXT with 66 in the operational constellation (six polar orbiting planes, each made up of 11 birds), nine serving as orbital spares and six as on earth ground spares. This constellation will completely cover the entire planet with reliable satellite connectivity and will replace the original Iridium network that was deployed in the late 1990’s by Motorola.

The Iridium network has always been the go-to choice for connectivity anywhere in the world. It’s story is a fascinating one (see my book review at http://www.amitel.com/trenchs/ ) and it has survived and flourished because its users love it. The phone works anywhere on the globe, including the Arctic and Antarctic regions and has thus made it a favourite of first responders, scientists, adventurers, journalists, explorers, the military and spies.

The technology upgrade that Iridium NEXT provides will allow for a new global broadband service beyond the current telephony and low speed data service. More bandwidth with higher throughput and faster speeds will support a host of new broadband services and devices across oceans, airways and the polar regions. Crucially , it will also be backwards compatible with current devices, in fact will provide improved performance and reliability to devices such as the Iridium 9555 phone and the Iridium Extreme.

So , while others such as Elon Musk (Space-x) and Jeff Bezos (Open Web) plan on launching constellations of satellites to provide a global broadband service, the Iridium system has already done it and is building upon an established user base that values the service and the connectivity it provides anywhere on the planet.

Do I need a Satphone ?


These days almost everyone in Canada has a smartphone. It seems that we can’t live our lives without one. But what do we do when we are out of range of a cell-tower signal ? How do we remain connected and not panic when we have zero bars on our phone and there is no WiFi available ? That is when a satphone becomes essential.

Satellite phones (Satphones) have been around for over two decades, since the early constellations like Iridium were put into orbit in the late 1990’s. Some people think that satphones are only for large corporations, the government or mountain climbing expeditions but that is not true. There are many important reasons for ordinary Canadians to have quick and efficient access to reliable communications. Here is why you should have communications anytime, anywhere.

First, and most importantly, satellite communications are critical during and after natural disasters. Canada is not immune to severe weather and emergencies that can knock infrastructure like cell towers out of commission. We have seen this with the ice storms in Quebec , fires such as the one in Fort McMurray, the floods in Calgary and Winnipeg, extensive power outages in Ontario, avalanches and tornados. During a disaster, often the only communications network that remains working is the satellite one and it is vital for relief work, search and rescue and letting loved ones know your status.

Additionally, satellite phones can be an important lifeline during recreational activities. We Canadians love our great outdoors and we revel in activities like back country skiing, hiking, sailing, mountain biking, and hunting. We know that adventurers trying to break world records in remote areas of the world such as Mount Everest or in the Antarctic or Arctic carry satphones. They are just as useful in Northern Ontario, or the Rocky Mountains or even at the cottage where you’re out of range of a cell signal.

What about your job site ? Many Canadians still work in resource extraction industries, whether it is mining, forestry or oil and gas. Staying connected via a satphone is essential to some industries, especially when driving down some remote highways where there are no gas stations or other traffic for long stretches.

So what kind of satphones are there ? The traditional ones like Inmarsat are based one geo-synchronous orbits (ie they look stationary from earth) and some (like Thureya) don’t cover North America. The GEO ones have a long delay as the signal has to travel up 22,236 miles to the bird and then back down. There is one network, Iridium, that covers the entire globe using LEO (low Earth orbit) satellites that have almost no delay and that is well suited for providing service in Canada. They have many solutions depending on how you want to stay connected using satellite communications. Two of the most popular are a standalone handheld satellite phone, or alternatively turning your own existing smartphone into a satellite phone.

The Iridium 9555 and Iridium Extreme are two of the most popular Iridium handheld products. Both phones feature up to 30 hours of standby and four hours of talk time, in a small and very durable structure. Through talk and text, the Iridium 9555 and Iridium Extreme can save lives. The Iridium Extreme also has e-mail messaging capability, Google Mapping services, and GPS-enabled location-based services.

Iridium GO! is the innovative product which transforms your smartphone into a satellite phone anywhere in the world. Compatible with Apple and Android, Iridium GO! extends the use of your smartphone and devices. The Iridium GO! app extends your connection, optimizing you for voice, SMS, e-mail, 100-foot radius of WiFi for up to five devices, weather monitoring and more.

Whether you are making a disaster prep plan, heading our on a wilderness trip, or like the ease-of-mind of being accessible during your adventures, having the right resources in place for any situation is crucial. That is why a satphone can be essential to living an active life outdoors in Canada.