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Crowded satellite Internet market gets a new player: Lightspeed

February 9, 2021, 5:00 PM UTC

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The increasingly crowded space of low Earth orbit is getting even more crowded. Canadian satellite operator Telesat announced on Tuesday details of its planned constellation of 300 satellites in low orbit to provide high-speed Internet service worldwide by the end of 2023.

But Telesat said it had not yet “finalized” full financing to back its plan with the satellites to be manufactured by Thales Alenia Space. Failure to find enough money to pay for building large satellite networks has stopped prior efforts, including most recently when SoftBank Group’s OneWeb filed for bankruptcy last year, though it has since emerged with new backing.

“Commencement of full construction activities and the final constellation deployment schedule are subject to, and conditional upon, the progress of the financing for the program,” Telesat said in a statement.

The Canadian effort marks at least the fourth plan currently seeking to offer Internet from low-orbiting satellites, typically a few hundred to 1,000 or so miles above the planet. Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s Starlink service is already offering Internet from space for $100 per month in parts of North America. OneWeb, out of bankruptcy and now owned by the British government and other investors, has lofted more than 100 satellites with plans to reach almost 650 satellites by the end of 2022. And Jeff Bezo’s Project Kuiper has announced big plans but not yet moved to launch satellites. The efforts also compete with traditional satellite services using higher orbits like Viasat that offer pricey Internet service in some parts of the world.

Unlike some of its rivals, Telesat does not plan to market Lightspeed directly to ordinary consumers at home. Instead, the company said it is targeting fixed and mobile network operators, aeronautical and maritime users, enterprise customers, and governments. Consumers would have to purchase service from one of those operators.

All four new space Internet services are seeking to avoid the fate of earlier efforts like the Bill Gates–backed Teledesic, as well as Iridium and Globalstar, which announced big plans in the 1990s but ended up disbanding or filing for bankruptcy after costs soared and money from investors dried up. And even though Starlink has started offering actual service, Elon Musk on Tuesday tweeted about his fears given the rough history of prior services.

“SpaceX needs to pass through a deep chasm of negative cash flow over the next year or so to make Starlink financially viable,” he wrote. “Every new satellite constellation in history has gone bankrupt. We hope to be the first that does not.”

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