Canadian firm plans 78-satellite Net service

MSCI is taking a different approach to try to relieve the congestion that's sullying the smartphone experience.

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3 min read
MSCI's CommStellation Microsat MSCI

A Canadian satellite maker plans to launch a network of 78 small, relatively low-flying satellites designed to help relieve network congestion that's significantly dampening smartphone enthusiasm.

MSCI, which stands for Microsat Systems Canada Inc., is trying to be a bit of a maverick with its project, called CommStellation. The company said today that its approach of using small, inexpensive satellites in low orbit--about 620 miles above the Earth--means better coverage of the world's population, quicker launch, and better network capacity.

The company likes to spotlight its competition with the O3b, the Google-backed satellite project to improve Net access for the 3 billion people who live outside of wealthy, well-wired areas. But realistically, MSCI's greater competition probably is more down to Earth--fiber optic lines and perhaps femtocells built to ease network congestion.

Still, MSCI argues that its use of rugged but relatively ordinary terrestrial electronics means it can move fast enough to make entry into new satellite communications markets a "no-brainer."

"Until now, no one in the industry has been able to find the manufacturing cost and scheduling efficiencies and cost-effective microsatellite technology to enable an economically viable constellation of satellites to provide 100 percent global coverage," Justin Phillips, MSCI's vice president of marketing, said in a statement.

Specifically, the company is able to use more ordinary electronics with its lower-elevation satellites. Medium orbit satellites--about 5,000 miles above Earth--such as rival O3b need components with higher reliability in order to withstand the temperature and radiation rigors of space. MSCI's satellites are also relatively small, meaning that 14 can be packed into a single launch rocket compared with O3b's 4 satellites. And much less power is required to transmit data to and from the MSCI's satellites since they're closer to Earth.

MSCI plans to launch satellites starting in 2014 and reach full network capability in 2015.

MSCI's illustration of its network of CommStellation satellites above the Earth.
MSCI's illustration of its network of CommStellation satellites above the Earth. MSCI

This isn't the sort of thing that a person's phone will tie into directly. Rather, mobile phone base stations or other local network hubs will link to the satellites. The satellites in turn link to a network of 20 ground stations around Earth that link to the Internet, providing what's known as "back-haul" network capacity.

Back-haul constraints are a big problem today for network operators trying to balance consumers' demand for profitable but data-hogging smartphones with their own needs to keep their networks from being crushed by the data traffic.

Each MSCI satellite has a data-transfer capacity of 12 gigabits per second. The expected lifespan of each is 10 years, and they can be sent back into the atmosphere at the end of their lives to avoid more orbital clutter.

MSCI plans to launch 84 satellites into six orbital planes, each 30 degrees apart. Each orbital plane gets 13 primary satellites and one spare.

Each satellite will provide coverage to a circular area of about 7 million square miles, MSCI said. Because the satellites travel in a polar orbit, meaning that they orbit along a line of longitude crossing over the north and south poles, coverage improves in the higher latitude where the orbits draw closer.

The company hasn't yet selected a launch partner or announced investors or customers.