Satellite Internet startup LeoSat has contracted with manufacturer Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy to conduct a one-year cost study of the company’s planned low Earth orbiting (LEO) constellation of high-throughput broadband satellites.

The Virginia-based startup is among a handful of companies that recently unveiled plans for new Internet constellations, joining the Google-backed venture led by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) that aims to orbit a constellation of more than 4,000 small satellites in LEO, and startup OneWeb, whose 648-satellite low Earth orbiting network is financed by chipmaker Qualcomm and Virgin Group.

LeoSat, a company founded by former Schlumberger executives Cliff Anders and Phil Marlar, aims to orbit a constellation of small, high-throughput Ka-band spacecraft that will deliver Internet services globally. The network initially would comprise 80 satellites aimed at fixed and maritime markets by 2019, and ultimately grow to around 120 satellites to offer mobile service.

Led by Vern Fotheringham, who recently left the top post at flat-panel antenna startup Kymeta Corp., LeoSat is developing an architecture that will use autonomous routing over a fully meshed network designed to offer secure, point-to-point communications around the globe without touching the ground.

Fotheringham says while other satellite-Internet constellations aim to deliver broadband to the masses, LeoSat’s primary focus will be delivering “ industrial-grade communications to major organizations,” both commercial and government.

“We’re really most interested in the top 3,000 companies,” Fotheringham said in a March 16 interview on the sidelines of the Satellite 2015 show in Washington. “It could be exploration, scientific, extraction – all the markets with significant capacity requirements in places where traditional communications systems simply do not exist.”

In addition, Fotheringham says LeoSat sees “some very interesting opportunities for early-entry strategies, where with a single plane you can get 24/7 coverage in the high and low latitudes, where we find big gaps in infrastructure with not a whole lot of people but very high-value people with high-value requirements.”

Fotheringham describes the LeoSat class of satellite as “Iridium on steroids,” referring to the mobile fleet operator’s new-generation Iridium NEXT constellation nearing completion at Thales Alenia Space.

“Thales has staked out a pretty interesting position in this class of satellite in non-geosynchronous orbit deployment, and we’re bringing our own talent and technology base to that,” he said.

Orbiting at around 1,800 km, LeoSat satellites would offer power in the 2-kw range and incorporate onboard processing and high-capacity inter-satellite links, though the company has not determined whether the constellation will use optical communication or radio-frequency spectrum to achieve this.

He said LeoSat has been quietly working with the European satellite maker for the past 1 1/2 years as system design partner with a focus on the system’s orbital architecture, orbital mechanics and power-flux density requirements for spectrum coordination.

“There are still significant technical challenges, but we are well-armed with very high quality folks working on this,” he said.

Fotheringham said LeoSat ground terminals would be sized from 1 meter for high-performance models, but more likely would average around 0.6 meters. Costs would range from $50,000 for high-speed terminals, with lower-performing options starting at around $10,000.

The LeoSat constellation is expected to cost between $2.5-$3.5 billion to build and launch, and would be orbited in tranches of eight spacecraft, most likely on a medium-class rocket like the SpaceX Falcon 9, which is launching the bulk of Iridium’s 66-satellite NEXT constellation over the coming two years.

“One of the interesting things about this generation of technology is that the work Iridium has done with SpaceX lets us graft a lot of work done off that launcher configuration,” Fotheringham said.

He said LeoSat has applied for frequency spectrum rights with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and will be seeking strategic partners in the coming months.

“There will be announcements as to stages of financing and strategic alliances in the coming months, and this is going to be built on a number of important and key strategic relationships, both from a technology point of view and distribution,” he said. “Those are the metrics to keep an eye out for. Were going to announce incrementally an appropriate series of releases that track reality.”