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'CommStellation': Swarm of net satellites planned

By Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent, BBC News

image captionThe satellites would be launched into orbit at 14 to a rocket - 13 operational, one spare

A Canadian company has announced a plan to put 78 small satellites in orbit to carry the internet.

Called the "CommStellation", the system would be deployed from 2014-2015. It would require six rockets to take the platforms to an altitude of 1,000km.

The network will act as backhaul, linking the traffic of local telecoms and internet service providers to the global fibre infrastructure.

Microsat Systems Canada Inc (MSCI) has not revealed any details on financing.

It is, however, an established and very experienced small spacecraft systems manufacturer.

The company said many regions across North America and the rest of the world were falling behind in terms of the bandwidth needed by users. Space offered a simple solution to that problem, claimed David Cooper, the president and chief executive of MSCI.

Market space

"Here in Canada, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is pushing to extend high-speed internet connections to all Canadians," he explained.

"Industry estimates to extend that fibre network are on the order of seven billion dollars and will take 10 years to implement. CommStellation [on the other hand] will be about one-tenth of that cost and be twice as fast to implement."

CommStellation would do something very similar to O3b, which is planning a constellation of eight internet backhaul satellites in a medium-Earth orbit (8,000km) around the equator. This system is also expected to start to roll out in the middle of the decade.

CommStellation would be very much lower in the sky than O3b and would circle the Earth via the poles.

"We're not necessarily a head-to-head competitor for O3b, although we will provide a similar service to them over the equator," Mr Cooper told BBC News.

"Much of our strong capability will be in areas north and south of 45 degrees latitude where they won't have a lot of capability. But even at the equator, recent estimates I saw talked about O3b addressing less than half of 1% of the global market for backhaul. So there's lots of room out there for another constellation."

Growing demand

The Canadian venture's 78 microsatellites would sit in six planes (with a spare in each plane), providing, says MSCI, up to 15 times the speed and 10 times the total bandwidth capacity of a MEO constellation of comparable satellites. Each platform would have a mass of approximately 150kg and a total throughput of 12Gbps.

The constellation would be connected to terrestrial fibre networks through 20 telecommunications ports, or teleports, located around the globe.

One the of advantages of having a low-orbiting system is the reduced latency, or delay, introduced into the transmission of data as it passes back and forth to the satellites in the sky. This latency can be quite severe on geostationary systems positioned 36,000km above the Earth.

Constellations for satellite communications have had a chequered history. Two of the best known satellite phone and data services companies, Iridium and Globalstar, had to go through major financial restructuring when their initial business models failed.

O3b took a couple of years to put its financing in place despite the backing of some big names like Google and the TV satellite operator SES.

"Both Iridium and Globalstar pushed the market - they were putting up constellations before there was a strong market demand, and it's only been quite recently that the market demand has really caught up to the business model. In our case, it's the reverse. There are immense backhaul shortages now and it's going to get worse," Mr Cooper said.

"Every time Apple or Blackberry or someone else introduces a high-definition phone that's going to stream video to kids out on the street, you can hear the telcos groaning from the load it's going to put on their networks."

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