Why LeoSat’s Leaving Internet for the Masses to OneWeb

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PARIS — Vern Fotheringham says his December resignation as chief executive of new-generation satellite antenna builder Kymeta was part of an amicable separation after three years.

“It was the right time,” Fotheringham said in a March 9 interview. “The transition was seamless and painless. The successor I mentored was ready for the baton to be passed. I am the guy you hire to start hard things.”

As of early March, Fotheringham’s endeavor is running LeoSat LLC of Arlington, Virginia, whose ambition is to launch 120-140 high-power Ka-band satellites into low Earth orbit for global data transfer, a project likely to cost $2.5 billion to $3 billion.

Internet for the multitudes it is not. “You hear talk about serving the other 3 billion unconnected — a wonderful thing for Google or Facebook. We are a commercial company. We’ll stick with the top 3,000 rather than the other 3 billion.”

Fotheringham offered details of the LeoSat system but cautioned that some of its most important elements, such as the kind of intersatellite link to be used, have yet to be decided.

“This is an early-stage company,” he said. “They have been at it for two and one-half years, doing real work. They have retained some of the brightest guys in the industry to help the founders, both ex-Schlumberger guys.”


How does LeoSat differ from what SpaceX or OneWeb are planning?
Most of the other very large constellations are small satellites with modest onboard power. They will have tremendous coverage but they are going to suffer capacity constraints due to the fact that they’re not flying a lot of power. We are putting a high-capacity platform into service to solve some of the most intractable communications problems that industry and government have faced over the years that cannot be addressed by geosynchronous solutions. It’s a time in history when we can benefit from the progress in materials science, and in the electronics and payload side.

Concept of Leosat satellite network
Concept of Leosat satellite network. LeoSat plans to launch 120-140 high-power Ka-band satellites into low Earth orbit for global data transfer. Credit: Leosat

Starting about two decades ago similar ideas were advanced, but the projects failed. What’s different now?
You see high-throughput satellites coming into the market and proving their utility. We’re looking to extend that same competency into the LEO (low Earth orbit) space. The real secret here is the development of low-cost, electronic beam-forming antennas, such as those Kymeta is developing, that allow tracking and signal hand-off. The technology development and proof of technology was all accomplished on my watch. The next wave of product development is at hand, with major equipment manufacturers.

You registered your network with the International Telecommunication Union through an Advance Publication of Information (API)?
There is one with our fingerprints on it, yes.

Which national government made the filing?
I’d prefer not to tell you.

Why not?
The spectrum challenges are enormous, as is the trafficking in spectrum nonsense. We’ve seen a flurry of paper satellites emerge just since January. It’s a difficult, challenging environment to coordinate spectrum in and it has a certain panache that spectrum speculators enjoy.

I’ve never heard panache used in reference to the ITU.
That’s because the guys who view it in that gestalt don’t have a clue what they’re up to. They think it’s a land grab, a gold mine, and they just add noise to the system that makes the rest of our lives miserable.

Filing an API gets you in the queue.
Yes and it carries its own set of constraints and decisions that have to be made. We’re in the game and we’ll pursue it appropriately. But it’s a real BS-slinger’s environment, with people trying to raise money by trafficking in what they don’t have. Having an API is not having a coordinated spectrum holding. An awful lot of people think having an API is the end of the game. It’s not. It’s the first step.

Is your system architecture decided?
We have filed in Ka-band. The work that has been done is for a fixed-applications solution, with very high bandwidth. What I am bringing to the company is an orientation that we extend the system’s functionality into mobile. Determining what is required to augment the current design for a fully mobile capability is my first priority.

Is it premature to talk about 80-100 satellites?
The original fixed solution called for 80 satellites. The target will be 120-140, with a nominal orbit of 1,800 kilometers.

Will frequency coordination be difficult?
It depends. The current number of applicants is probably easily accommodated. It depends on what the horse race turns into if other filers come out of the woodwork. The ITU allows five coordinated nongeostationary systems per spectrum allocation. That is generous.

Plus you’ll need to coordinate with satellites in your frequencies operating from geostationary orbit. It makes for a challenge around the equator.
And it makes it entertaining at the poles!

By what milestones should we measure your progress?
Finance is a good one, as are strategic alliances. This will require a significant number of strategic alliances, both on the distribution side and the operations side.

What is the system’s estimated capital cost?
$2.5 billion to $3 billion. It depends on the scale of the spacecraft. Our approach uses a substantial amount of intersatellite capability, a mesh constellation. That is where the hard work is taking place, on the intersatellite links. The forward link [from ground to satellite] is fairly straightforward. The intersatellite links are where we have all the fun of research and development to provide the highest-capacity, highest-reliability solution.

Will you use radio frequency or optical intersatellite links?
Yes! We do not yet have the final answer. We are working on that right now.