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Economy

What will low-Earth orbit satellites do for northern internet?


The Covid-19 pandemic forced an unprecedented number of people to work and learn from home, underscoring the importance of internet connectivity and the challenges many northern communities face.

Northwestel has pledged to close the North’s technology gap and provide all customers in the Yukon and NWT with access to broadband internet speeds of at least 50 megabits per second for downloads and 10 for uploads.

The company has been rolling out fibre optic lines – which it considers to be the gold standard in internet connectivity – in Hay River, Inuvik, Whatì, and the Dehcho region. But what about more remote communities where that infrastructure is too costly or difficult to install? 

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Some communities are already served by traditional satellite, but the limited capacity of those geo-stationary orbit (or GEO) satellites – which account for most of the world’s internet connectivity – and the long distances involved restrict internet speeds.

The next generation of technology, known as low-Earth orbit or LEO satellites, is being contemplated as the answer to remote communities’ internet prayers.

LEO satellites differ from GEO satellites as they orbit much closer to the Earth’s surface, which means much faster internet with less lag, similar to fibre. They don’t need to follow a particular path around the Earth, so there are more available routes.

“The way these satellites work is they produce a fairly narrow beam, but it’s quite wide,” explained OneWeb’s David van Dyke.

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The rocket from OneWeb’s recent LEO satellite launch. Photo: OneWeb

“For Canada, it’s fantastic because there’s not a lot of people sharing the bandwidth on these individual beams.” 

UK-based OneWeb added 35 satellites to its LEO fleet earlier this month, completing a plan to cover all regions north of 50 degrees latitude. Van Dyke said OneWeb plans to offer commercial services to internet providers and phone carriers in several countries by November. 

In Canada, Van Dyke said, roughly 46 communities don’t currently have fibre or any short-term plan to install it. 

“They’ve been suffering for a long time with no connectivity,” he said. “I’m really pushing to work with Indigenous communities, Inuit communities of the North.” 

Van Dyke added the company is working with mining, pipeline, and smaller Indigenous companies to support their internet needs. 

OneWeb works with internet service providers rather than dealing directly with individual residents. Van Dyke said the cost of internet plans using its service will be up to those providers.

“I couldn’t tell you exactly what they’re going to charge,” he said. “But I can tell you that, obviously, they want to make it affordable, because they won’t be able to sell it otherwise.”

LEO in the NWT

In 2019, Northwestel signed a memorandum of understanding to use Canadian satellite company Telesat’s LEO satellites in the North. Last November, the federal government also signed a $600-million deal for Telesat space.

Michele Beck, Telesat’s senior vice president of sales, told Cabin Radio the agreement with Northwestel will mean “ultra-fast, kind-of fibre-like broadband connectivity” for northern communities that don’t currently have broadband. She said Telesat plans to launch 300 satellites starting in 2023 and begin serving the North by early 2024.

“Ultimately, our goal is to connect underserved communities or communities that don’t have any service at all,” she said. 

Beck said Telesat will target both individual customers and businesses or governments.

A map from Northwestel shows a timeline of the company’s plans to provide broadband internet to every community in the NWT and Yukon.

During a panel at last month’s Inuvik-based Arctic Development Expo, Northwestel president Curtis Shaw said his company plans to use LEO satellites to serve nine communities in the NWT and Yukon that are a long way from having fibre service. 

“I don’t think anyone will disagree about all the social and economic benefits of better internet,” he said. “Internet is so critical and leaning on local technicians that are local Indigenous technicians is going to be really important as we move into these communities.” 

Improving redundancy

Beck said LEO satellites can provide backup connectivity in areas of Canada that don’t have redundant fibre. 

On several occasions in recent years, NWT communications have been disrupted after fibre optic cables were damaged. 

In July and August 2019, vandalism to the fibre line resulted in lengthy internet outages in Yellowknife and the surrounding area. RCMP recently told Cabin Radio criminal investigations into those incidents had concluded with no charges. 

Shaw said Northwestel is working with the Yukon and NWT governments on a project called the Canada North Fibre Loop that will provide redundancy for communities along the Mackenzie Valley. The company also plans a fibre line under Great Slave Lake to provide redundancy and prevent outages.

Shaw said a redundant path between the Yukon and NWT in place for the past five years has prevented an estimated 30 outages. 

The race to cover the Arctic

Other companies are racing to fill the broadband gap in the Arctic.

“The Arctic is a huge space,” OneWeb’s van Dyke said. “The Arctic has probably the most communities that actually have little or no fibre or no plans in the near future to have fibre, so that’s kind-of why you’re seeing the competitive nature of going after these markets.” 

There is also military interest in improving internet connectivity and speeds in the Arctic, particularly as sea ice melts and new shipping routes open. 

SpaceX’s Starlink received permission to launch 10 satellites into polar orbit in January, allowing it to begin offering service in Alaska. The company has rolled out a beta version of its service for customers in parts of the US, UK, Canada, Germany, and New Zealand. Pikangikum First Nation in Northern Ontario became the first community in Canada to connect to Starlink in December 2020. 

Starlink said it has successfully deployed around 1,800 LEO satellites with plans to launch more. It expects to provide global coverage by September but will need regulatory approval before it can do so.

The company began accepting pre-orders earlier this year with plans to start offering services to NWT customers in 2022. Chief executive Elon Musk said in May that more than 70,000 people are actively using the service around the world and more than 500,000 people have pre-ordered the service.

Mark Buell, North American regional vice-president of the Internet Society, said at the same Inuvik panel he “really sees the potential” for LEO satellites in the North.

“We’re seeing some preliminary data out of particularly the US, where Starlink is operating in a few pockets, and it does look like it’s a good service,” said Buell, though he said customers must expect an up-front cost for hardware along with monthly fees.

Compared to GEO satellites, more LEO satellites are needed to cover the Earth and they have a shorter lifespan. That’s likely to mean higher initial manufacturing and launch costs and more expensive ground hardware than GEO. 

In June, Musk said his company was losing money on the LEO beta kits it sells customers. Starlink is working on a lower-cost solution. 

Other companies have made plans to launch LEO satellite constellations but experienced financial issues due to high costs and limited demand. OneWeb’s initial plan to provide satellite internet service to the Arctic was derailed when it filed for bankruptcy in March 2020. The company emerged from bankruptcy in November.

For Telesat’s constellation, Northwestel will need to install satellite stations on the ground and will be responsible for the “last mile” infrastructure to connect customers.

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