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Peter MenziesNot long ago, the romantic notion that low earth orbit (LEO) satellites could make affordable high-speed Internet available in Canada’s many remote locations seemed fanciful at best.

It was spoken of frequently at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) hearing to establish the nation’s basic service objectives in the spring of 2016. Quite a bit actually because if this technology – being pursued at the time by many entrepreneurs including Richard Branson – could actually work, much more was possible than those of us involved could then imagine.

Alas, Richard Branson didn’t show up at the hearing. But among those celebrities who did was Telesat’s Ian Scott (now chair of the CRTC). He was optimistic about the possibilities but non-committal as to the future of LEOs.

“Telesat is committing significant dollars to a low orbit system,” Scott said. “I mean this is real money. We don’t spend money for no purpose.”

“I mentioned we are planning to launch … two prototype satellites (next year),” Scott said in response to questions from yours truly. “There is a lot of work to be done on the orbits. There is a lot of work to be done on the ground infrastructure. This is very different … and we are very keen to continue to explore it.”

There’s some chance that, at this stage, you are asking yourself what the actual heck a LEO is. Here is the description from Telesat’s news release late last month in which it announced a deal with the federal government which both parties claim will help bridge the digital divide between urban and rural Canada.

“Telesat LEO is a transformational, space-based broadband infrastructure that will address this urgent need. The first Telesat LEO satellite launched in early 2018 and the full constellation will be comprised of 298 satellites. These LEO satellites will be 35 times closer to Earth than traditional satellites, resulting in a shorter trip for Internet signals and making low-latency, fiber-like Internet accessible anywhere in the world.”

That’s a lot of new satellites to provide service for the roughly 2.3 million Canadian homes that don’t currently have access to affordable high-speed Internet. And while the deal is worth about $1.2 billion in revenue for Telesat over the next 10 years, that’s a small part of the income that will be required to make this venture commercially viable and successful. Given that, according to Telesat, “48 percent of the world’s population does not have access to reliable, affordable, high-speed Internet,” Canada is probably a relatively small part of its opportunity.

Dan Goldberg, Telesat’s President and CEO, while calling LEO “the most ambitious global broadband infrastructure program ever conceived” pointed out that “Telesat LEO has garnered substantial interest from commercial enterprises and governments around the world.”

For context, the vast majority of Canada would be classified as remote. Most of us may live in cities and towns but in most of our land mass people huddle together in small communities where government consists of a teacher, a nurse and a pair of Mounties. And there remain other areas close to cities and towns, but just beyond the reach of their service providers.

Communications services (telephone, cable and Internet) are via satellite and, of those, the most problematic for years in terms of capacity and affordability has been Internet. While as little as 10 years ago Internet service might have been in the “nice to have” category, it is now arguably the most important and in the “must have” category.

As Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, put it, “High-speed Internet is not a luxury; it is essential.”

The world moves quickly. This appears to be very good news indeed in terms of access. Solving the issues of competitive access and consumer affordability – particularly in the far north where life is already absurdly expensive – will be the next step.

Peter Menzies is a former newspaper publisher and vice-chair of the CRTC, and advises tech companies on regulatory policy (the views here are his own).

Peter is a Troy Media contributor. Why aren’t you?

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