Montreal's TerreStar plans to bring mobile satellite service to the masses

Unlike providers that require expensive proprietary phones or antennas, TerreStar will allow Canadians with new-generation phones to connect directly to a satellite when outside mobile range.

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A Montreal company is working to deploy mobile satellite communications service across Canada in the next few months, broadening access to a technology that has mostly found favour with corporations and wealthy individuals.

In the fall, TerreStar Solutions successfully tested its system by making voice calls, sending text messages and connecting to devices such as sensors or appliances, in partnership with Telus and non-terrestrial network operator Skylo Technologies. TerreStar plans to make its so-called “direct to device” service available to all Canadian mobile operators in 2024, CEO Jacques Leduc said.

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TerreStar has spent more than a decade putting together its system, which uses dedicated satellite spectrum in areas that lack mobile coverage. The company has access to the geostationary Echostar T1 satellite, S-band satellite spectrum and a ground network infrastructure.

“We want to become the telecom player of the rural areas,” Leduc said in a recent interview. “We evaluate that there are about 10 to 15 million people in Canada who have connectivity issues because they are frequently outside mobile coverage areas. The need is there, and we have the capacity to meet it with the assets we have at our disposal today.”

TerreStar has probably invested upward of $1 billion in the venture, including at least $500 million for satellite costs and “hundreds of millions” for infrastructure and licences, Leduc said. Additional sums will be required to build and launch a constellation of low-Earth-orbit satellites by 2032, when the Echostar T1 is projected to reach the end of its useful life, the CEO said.

Leduc is a former chief financial officer of Microcell Telecommunications, the Quebec company that pioneered the use of GSM mobile technology in Canada in the 1990s with the launch of the popular Fido brand. Founded by entrepreneur Charles Sirois, it made a name for itself with affordable calling plans.

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After Rogers Communications bought Microcell in 2004, Leduc set up Trio Capital, a private equity firm focused on telecommunications at home and abroad. Trio subsequently bought a majority stake in TerreStar, whose executive chairman today is former Microcell CEO André Tremblay, a Trio partner.

“When I got involved with TerreStar, I thought direct-to-device was going to take about 10 years,” Leduc said. “It’s taken a lot longer than that, but today, it’s a reality.”

Unlike satellite communications providers such as Iridium or Starlink, which either require expensive proprietary phones or the use of an antenna, TerreStar will allow Canadian users of new-generation phones to connect directly to a satellite when they are outside of mobile range.

For now, owners of older handsets — not configured for satellite communications — need to buy a $650 mobile antenna to use the TerreStar service, which is being marketed under the Strigo brand.

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TerreStar’s platform uses the global industry standard known as 3GPP. This facilitates communications between cellular and satellite networks, Leduc said.

“In the last 10 years, we have worked very hard to integrate the cellular phone ecosystem with our frequency bands,” he said. “Being in 3GPP means that we can connect the new generation of phones with our satellite infrastructure. More and more of the new handsets integrate this functionality. If you buy a Google Pixel, Motorola or Samsung phone in 2024, you’ll be able to get mobile service through our satellite.”

Satellite communications fill a glaring need in Canada because about three-quarters of the territory is not covered by cellular networks, Leduc said. Mobile operators only build cellphone towers in regions where there are enough residents to justify the investment.

Affordable satellite communications could allow authorities to detect wildfires in remote forests more quickly thanks to connected smoke detectors, Leduc said. Intelligent temperature measurement systems, meanwhile, could let farmers in underpopulated areas use water more efficiently.

“We are working with people who have sensors that can be installed in forests and are connected to the satellite,” Leduc said. “As soon as carbon dioxide is detected, an alarm would go off and the authorities would be alerted. The earlier you can detect a wildfire, the lower the cost to put it out and the more trees you can save.”

If Leduc has his way, Strigo’s game plan will mirror the Fido playbook.

“We can come out with lower-cost plans,” he said. “When we launched Fido in 1996, mobile phones were used by about 10 per cent of the population. Most operators charged $1 a minute. We launched Fido at 10 cents a minute and we made cellular service accessible to all. This is the same phenomenon we want to create here. By integrating 3GPP, we have the capacity to let people use a phone that doesn’t cost anything extra, whereas a satellite phone today can cost $2,000. When you buy your phone, the functionality will be included. It will be your everyday phone.”

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