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Telesat on why the wait for Lightspeed will be worth it in aero


Though its much-anticipated Lightspeed Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite network is delayed, Telesat is “neck deep” in development at the moment and believes the wait will be “well worth it” including for the commercial aviation sector. So said Telesat senior technical product manager Brian Kirby at the Airline Passenger Experience Association’s APEX TECH conference in Los Angeles.

Telesat expects to start launching its MDA-built Lightspeed Ka-band LEO satellites in 2026 and offer global service with a 198-satellite network in 2027. The Canadian satellite operator has a long history in providing geostationary (GEO) services to enterprise markets “and we intend to continue to do that with our LEO product”, assured Kirby, at a time when SpaceX, in contrast, has opted to serve aviation directly with its Ku-band LEO Starlink Aviation service.

“What that means,” said Kirby, “is we are not selling LEO to households, to individuals. We will be selling to companies and no matter if it’s a terrestrial, maritime or aviation service provider they will get a committed information guaranteed service as a result.”

Compliant with MEF 3.0 Carrier Ethernet service standards for seamless plug and play interoperability, Telesat Lightspeed is billed as being “an agile system designed to integrate into your existing infrastructure with minimum complexity, enabling faster and more efficient deployment of connectivity services”. But what does that mean for aviation?

It means that Telesat is pursuing an ‘open system’ approach, staying open, for instance, to both mechanically steered and electronically steered antennas for Lightspeed, and adhering to standards as much as possible to maximize flexibility for operators.

“We have the ARINC AEEC Committee with the 791 and 792 [standards addressing] how to architect a user terminal system inside the airplane. So we would like to adhere it to that as much as possible. Really the only bespoke portion of the Telesat user terminal is the modem card itself,” he said. And in the future “it can go to software defined”.

Basically, if we have a Ka-focused terminal onboard the airplane, it can go through the evaluation process with Lightspeed and get that approved for Lightspeed use with as little change as possible to the hardware.

Depending on how things shift out in the industry, this ‘plug and play’ approach could, for example, open doors for operators that use ThinKom Solutions’ popular multi-orbit capable VICTS hardware for Ka-band GEO connectivity service now to augment their service with Lightspeed Ka LEO or potentially move wholesale to a Lightspeed-powered IFC solution in the future.

Kirby describes this sort of implementation as “a bridge to LEO”, noting that “there won’t ever be any Telesat part number hardware equipment on aircraft, and we’ll let the market decide where the hardware needs to go. And there’s various reasons why there may be some combined GEO/LEO operations in the near-term but moving towards or bridging towards LEO for the long-term as the passenger demand kind of dictates it for the types of apps that they want to use.”

Interestingly, during an IFC hardware-focused workshop at APEX TECH, airline participants confided that they’d like to see a ‘multi-orbit, multi-constellation, low-weight, low-latency, high-throughput, low-cost and simple-to-install’ antenna that would enable them to easily switch services as need be and not be wholly reliant on just one constellation or one owned satellite.

This sort of “holy grail of antennas” would maximize flexibility whilst also providing resiliency, protecting operators in the event of a satellite anomaly, for instance. Telesat’s ‘open system’ vision is in sync with this sort of approach.


Another differentiator, said Kirby, is Lightspeed’s optical inter-satellite links, which enable it to process and move traffic as required even over oceans. “So, if need be, if we had a customer that wanted to land traffic on the other side of the planet, with our optical inter-satellite link on each satellite we can move that traffic to where it needs to go so no, we don’t have to have GEO [satellites] in order to do that.”

Shipping data via inter-satellite links will increase latency over water on a LEO system — the further away from the ground station you get. But “your overall total latency is going to be head and shoulders better than what you see with GEO,” said Kirby.

Security is also paramount for Telesat. “[W]e are deep into the development of Lightspeed at the moment. One of our key enterprise customers is US Department of Defense and the Space Force requirements for security weigh heavily upon that design, and all other market verticals will benefit from that,” added the Telesat executive.

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