From Boeing to SpaceX: 11 companies looking to shake up the satellite space

The FCC granted WorldVu Satellites Ltd., doing business as OneWeb, permission in June to enter the U.S. satellite market. OneWeb wants to build a constellation of 720 satellites to provide internet services across the world and expects to launch its first satellite next year.

But it’s far from the only company with designs on space. Despite earlier attempts at satellite businesses that came and went, new entrants want to take advantage of advancements in technology and give it a go. Companies filed with the FCC last year to launch 8,731 non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) communications satellites, according to Parabolic Arc. Not all of them are proposing to connect the unconnected to the internet; some are geared toward IoT and others are looking at serving the space industry. Performance is expected to be far better than previous satellite generations, with fiberlike speeds and lower latency.

It’s unlikely that all of them are going to make it to market, but FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has said the hope is to approve many more constellations because the more companies that compete, the more consumers win.

Besides OneWeb, at least 11 other entities are in various stages of consideration at the FCC. Applications are being reviewed by the FCC’s satellite engineering experts in the agency’s International Bureau.

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the satellite proposals that are pending before the FCC. However, to be clear, it’s by no means exhaustive, as other entities contemplate satellite ventures.

1. Space Exploration Holdings (SpaceX)

SpaceX is among those targeting the unconnected, with plans to bring high-speed, reliable and affordable broadband internet service to consumers in the U.S. and the world, including areas underserved or currently unserved by existing networks. The SpaceX system will initially consist of 4,425 satellites using Ka- and Ku-Band spectrum to provide a wide range of broadband and communications services for residential, commercial, institutional, governmental and professional users worldwide. SpaceX has separately filed for authority to operate in the V-Band, where it has proposed an additional constellation of 7,500 satellites operating even closer to Earth.

For the consumer, SpaceX says its end-user terminals, which will amount to a relatively small flat panel the size of a laptop, will use phased array technologies to allow for highly directive, steered antenna beams that track the system’s low-Earth orbit satellites. In space, satellites will communicate with each other using optical intersatellite links, which the company says will effectively create a mesh network flying overhead that will enable seamless network management and continuity of service.

2. The Boeing Co.

Aeronautical giant Boeing proposes to operate up to 2,956 satellites in low Earth orbit to provide internet access to government and commercial customers in the United States and globally. Boeing plans to deploy the first portion of the system—1,396 satellites operating at an altitude of 1,200 km—within six years following license grant and to subsequently increase the constellation to a total of 2,956 satellites.

Boeing argues that the kind of V-band NGSO system that it proposes could go a long way toward meeting the commission’s desire to foster greater availability of affordable broadband, especially in rural or remote areas where terrestrial providers cannot or won’t build out.

Boeing hasn't traditionally been a direct competitor to terrestrial cellular operators. But it's a large manufacturer of commercial satellites and has been a leader in the satellite industry since the launch of Syncom, the first geosynchronous communications satellite, more than 50 years ago.

3. O3b

Named for the “other 3 billion” people around the world who still need to get connected to the internet—a number that some say is really more like 4 billion nowadays—O3b Networks has been around a number of years. Its founder, Greg Wyler, is now the head of OneWeb, which he says has a different mission from O3b.

O3b already provides services to cruise ships and governments around the world, but it has said that it wants market access to the V-band for up to 24 additional satellites that would operate in a circular equatorial orbit as a constellation called O3bN, according to SpaceNews.

Earlier this year, O3b CEO Steve Collar told Satellite Today that he’s optimistic that the solution that the company has for its follow-on architecture will be extremely competitive with anything else that is either in the market now or planned for the future. But for O3b, it’s not about launching hundreds of satellites; it’s more about developing the capability and efficiency of each satellite, he said.

4. Kepler Communications

Toronto-based Kepler is talking about enabling intelligent shipping, smart agriculture, connected transportation and remote telematics by deploying a satellite M2M backhaul service. According to its website: “Put simply, we are building cell phone towers in space.”

Kepler says its proposed NGSO constellation, made of nanosatellites the size of a football, will enable IoT aggregation, backhaul and spectrum sharing. It will also make real-time connectivity available for devices both on and off Earth’s surface, “empowering the information age across the world.”

At the core of each satellite is a novel Software Defined Radio, electronically steerable antenna array and networking protocol that has the potential to become the standard for satellite communications with dynamic links and variable channel sizes, the company said in its petition to the FCC. 

The Kepler system will consist of up to 140 satellites, inclusive of in-orbit spares, with the capability to increase the number of satellites in operation to meet user demand. Kepler pledges that each spacecraft’s cost will be low enough that they can be upgraded every three years with the latest advances in communication technology.

5, Telesat Canada

Ottawa, Canada-based Telesat currently provides satellite-delivered communications solutions worldwide to broadcast, telecom, corporate and government customers. The company’s fleet consists of 15 satellites plus the Canadian payload on ViaSat-1 with two new satellites under construction.

The company describes its planned V-band NGSO constellation as a “second-generation overlay” to its proposed Ka-band NGSO constellation. The V-band constellation is designed to provide additional communications capacity for Telesat’s NGSO service.

According to Space News, Telesat’s system would be comprised of at least 117 satellites in two orbits, with Telesat stressing that it designed its combined polar-/inclined-orbit system with U.S. military users in mind.  

6. ViaSat

ViaSat already offers broadband services, including to rural America, but it wants to augment its network with a constellation of 24 satellites at an altitude of 8,200 kilometers, according to the FCC (PDF).

Earlier this year, the company saw the successful launch of its ViaSat-2 satellite, which is expected to make the company’s service more competitive with terrestrial services, improving speeds and expanding ViaSat’s footprint across North America, Central America, the Caribbean, a portion of northern South America and across the Atlantic Ocean between North America and Europe.

ViaSat is talking about the ability to offer 25, 50 or even 100 Mbps speeds to homes, rivaling terrestrial broadband offerings, while simultaneously serving thousands of passengers on cruise ships and in airplanes. It’s also able to move capacity to where the demand is—for example, where cruise ships need it—and it will provide the kind of service that would allow people flying from Los Angeles to Istanbul to stream movies and video at 35,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean, regardless of how many people and devices are connected.

7. Space Norway

Space Norway wants to be able to operate at least two satellites in what would be part of its Arctic Satellite Broadband Mission (ASBM) to access the U.S. market. As that moniker implies, the company’s main focus is to deliver high-speed broadband internet connectivity to end users in the Arctic region, which includes Alaska.

The company has said its ASBM will be capable of providing broadband internet access to users in the Arctic region who have poor or no connection to GSO satellite systems or terrestrial networks.

8. Theia Holdings

The proposed Theia Satellite Network (TSN) is designed as an integrated Earth observation and communications network to provide remote-sensing and communications products and services to a variety of users in the U.S. and worldwide.

The constellation would include 112 operational satellites in LEO that incorporate remote-sensing, signal-processing and communications payloads. TSN is designed to collect, process and deliver remote-sensing information products directly to end users on demand and to provide broadband communications necessary to the delivery of these products and services, including directly into machines via M2M communications.

Potential markets for Theia’s services include basic Earth and atmospheric sciences, agriculture, natural resources exploration, insurance, infrastructure protection and support of economic and physical security.

9. LeoSat MA

LeoSat is working with Thales Alenia Space to manufacture and launch a constellation of up to 108 Ka-band communications satellites. The high-throughput satellites will be interconnected through laser links, effectively creating an optical backbone in space that is said to be about 1.5 times faster than terrestrial fiber backbones.

Plans call for the constellation to provide a highly secure communications infrastructure for business operations in the telecom backhaul, energy, maritime, government and international business markets. The constellation is scheduled to start launching into space in 2019, according to LeoSat’s website.

10. Karousel LLC

Not much information is available on Karousel, but based on its FCC application from Nov. 15, 2016, the company describes its system as a first-of-its-kind satellite-based video and data distribution platform that would rely on up to four satellites operating in each of three global regions.

Based upon an algorithm that predicts top content likely to be requested by consumers, along with known customer preferences, Karousel’s constellation would regularly deliver fresh content to Karousel user equipment (UE) on the ground as the satellites pass over user locations during orbit. The Karousel UE locally caches the content delivered from Karousel’s various satellites so that it can be consumed at the convenience of the user.

Karousel said it would distribute a range of video programming including movies, television shows, documentaries and news depending on user preferences. The company intends to cultivate partnerships with independent programmers interested in distributing on-demand content to end users without a cable service provider serving as an intermediary. Users would access the video through an app running on the Karousel UE or on third-party devices such as streaming media players, smartphones and tablets.

11. Audacy Corp.

According to its website, Audacy was launched in 2015 by a team of Stanford graduates, NASA award winners and SpaceX veterans. The company was formed around a simple idea: to deliver anytime, seamless space connectivity that “advances humanity to a new age of space commerce, exploration and discovery.”

The problem the company is tackling has to do with ground-based communications stations reaching their limits. They offer connectivity less than 40% of the time for most NGSO spacecraft, and with limited downlink windows, operators are throwing away a lot of valuable data.

To the rescue, Audacy has proposed a space-based data relay constellation that will provide operators with always-on, seamless access to their NGSO spacecraft. Plans call for its space-based data relay system to go live in 2019, with initial ground-based services launching in 2017, according to the company’s website. It says its model is similar to that of a telecom operator on the ground but for customers in space.

End users of the company’s planned Relay Network include operators of Earth observation satellites requiring real-time access to photographic and video data, launch providers needing continuous telemetry from onboard sensors, and operators of large LEO constellations requiring continuous command and control of every satellite simultaneously, wherever they are in their orbit.