VIA SATELLITE: I noticed you talked about a LEO constellation ‘CurvaNet’? What are your exact plans when it comes to developing a LEO constellation?
Choi: Curvalux is a phased array multi-beam antenna installed on mobile phone towers to deliver affordable terrestrial fixed wireless access. CurvaNet is an implementation of Curvalux antennas on low earth orbiting satellites to reach areas that are beyond the coverage of mobile phone towers. Curvalux has undergone extensive testing around the world in over 15 locations and we just landed our first large signature customer – Globe Telecom in the Philippines. They are part of the Singtel Group, which is around the third-largest mobile group in the world. We have a plan over the next five years to provide Curvalux to around 25 percent of the towers Globe has. That would be 50 percent of the population where they don’t have a low-cost technology to deliver wireless broadband services. Curvalux will be used to fulfill the broadband needs in those areas. Nonetheless, there is still about 5 to 10 percent of the population in the Philippines that can’t be reached by towers. It will be very difficult to install towers in those areas due to the lack of backhaul, electrical power, and sufficient user density to justify the investment. People living in these uncovered areas sometimes have to walk for hours to get mobile services. This is a similar situation in most of the developing markets around the world. Those people require a solution that combines a very low-cost user device and low service fees. Therefore the concept of CurvaNet was developed. The key to the CurvaNet and why it differentiates itself from other LEO/MEO systems is that we have designed and filed a patent for a user terminal that can be produced for less than $100 which can track LEO satellites while consuming around 5W of power. The reason why it is so low cost is that it does not use phased array beamforming technology. The antenna will be portable, as it will weigh less than 10 kilograms. A common person can carry it to any destination, set it on the ground, connect a $10 solar panel to it and switch it on. The antenna will provide a Wi-Fi signal to the user and it will connect to the CurvaNet constellation and provide internet access. It is that simple. If you know how to use a smart-phone and a Wi-Fi router, you can install and use CurvaNet.
It is a different type of approach versus what is being tried by SpaceX, Kuiper, OneWeb, Telesat and others. We are using different technologies and serving a different market segment. I believe aero mobility, government and maritime are three segments where these broadband LEO systems will find their niches. In these segments they will be competitive against GEO. The pricing maybe higher but they can provide low latency and provide a differentiated offering where the cost of the user antenna and available power are not issues for customers.
While we have the unique $100, our constellation will also cost one-tenth compared with the competition. Our initial constellation of 240 satellites will be developed and launched for less than $500 million because we make our own satellites, payload and user equipment. Your readers may recall that our sister company Saturn Satellite Networks is building cost effective small GEO satellites using the Novawurks HISat. The HISat can also be used to create low cost but high-powered LEO satellites like CurvaNet. Each one of our satellites will have about 50Gbps of capacity and 2kW of power. Although we will depend upon third party launch providers, we will be as vertically integrated as anyone. Our initial launch of 60 satellites will go to the equatorial region where most of the unserved people are. We believe we will have more capacity than any other LEO constellation for the equatorial region even with our first launch. The second and third launches of 180 satellites in a higher inclination will provide coverage for the remaining 99% of the land mass of the earth.
VIA SATELLITE: So, you are the real O3b then?
Choi: I would say if anyone has a chance to provide Internet connectivity to three billion people who do not have access, we have the best shot. We want to give the person in a remote rural area, basic broadband connectivity of over 50mbps, where they can share a $100 antenna with their family and neighbors, and since our constellation will be one-tenth of our competitors, we will be able to provide tariffs below $0.20 per Gigabyte. With our CurvaNet antenna, we strongly believe we have the strongest proposition to realistically serve 3 billion people without internet access. These people do not have sufficient income to afford a $500 phased array antenna that costs $100 per month that required 100W of electrical power which they don’t have nor can afford.
VIA SATELLITE: When will the first satellite be launched?
Choi: That is a good question. We have our plan. We are finalizing a financial support agreement with a major country. It is a top ten country in terms of global GDP. It is a country that is giving quite a bit of financial support, and I think we will be able to announce something this summer. They are going to provide a significant amount of research grants, and low-cost loans. We have already lined up ECA partners for the satellite export as well as the launches. We have multiple partners that are interested in providing us equity. I am in the middle of fundraising and government support gathering, and I think this summer, I can make an announcement on that. The first launch of a satellite should happen in two years after the fund raising is completed. Needless to say, we are not waiting we are funding the development, design, marketing and regulatory work internally within our organization. We have been doing so for the past 2 years.
VIA SATELLITE: How long will it take to get all 240 satellites up?
Choi: The equatorial region launch will be 60 satellites and the higher inclination launches will be 90 satellites each. We do not need all the satellites launched to start revenue service. The first 60 satellites will cover over 1.5B people so we will generate income with the first launch. The second and third will happen about 18 months later. We are breaking up our program into three phases starting with a demonstration phase where we are planning to launch one satellite, payload and user terminal as a proof of concept and risk mitigation. Based on the success of the first launch the commercial investors will step in when the program is materially de-risked.
VIA SATELLITE: Some will say ‘another LEO constellation’. What will be your competitive advantages?
Choi: We have a $100 patented antenna which does not need commercial electricity. The tariffs will be one-tenth compared to other LEO competitors. It will be very affordable. I will let the customers decide but based on the market research we did in 2020 where we undertook a 100-country global survey of top Telcos, ISPs, Government Regulators, and Aid Agencies, we received remarkable feedback. The most notable feedback from most of them was that they see CurvaNet as the first constellation that was designed up with the user on the earth and their needs. Based on pricing and features we don’t doubt we will sufficient customers to make a return on investment.
VIA SATELLITE: You have been pretty outspoken in the past about LEO constellations and the likes of OneWeb for example. Is there a sense of irony that one of the biggest critics of LEO is now potentially joining the bandwagon?
Choi: We are not targeting telco broadband not trying to deliver consumer broadband to developed markets. I am still very doubtful that telco broadband will work for LEO due to problems with line-of-sight issues and lack of capacity needed by mobile towers. We are also not targeting urban & suburban broadband where customers demand 100% uptime and unlimited download capacity. Those customers will be served by fiber or fixed wireless broadband and GEO HTS satellites will be cheaper alternative as well. We are targeting a service for those people at the edge of civilization who need extremely affordable internet access. I decided to do the CurvaNet project because I saw the solutions that are being proposed by the other LEO systems will not be economical to the three billion people that don’t have income, who don’t have electricity access. If these systems were designed for these people I wouldn’t have started CurvaNet.
VIA SATELLITE: Has your opinion shifted at all on LEO constellations?
Choi: Human beings are very clever and capable. I am extremely impressed by SpaceX and the Starlink team. With a significant amount of research and development, they have developed an incredible engineering marvel in their user antenna the Dishy. Nevertheless, developing technology was never the challenge. I never thought that companies like Airbus could not build satellites, but I always challenged the business model. These $5, $10 & $20 billion programs that will ultimately lead close to $100B in investment the next 10 years, are chasing a market which NSR projects will not be bigger than $5B per year in 2029. These constellations will have issues if they find sufficient number of customers quickly. To answer your question specifically after much consideration my opinion has indeed changed that LEO systems will work for certain government applications and mobility. I believe for these market segments, they will have a much competitive advantage over GEOs because they provide lower latency and line of sight will not be a problem. Consumer broadband may work in North America, but it won’t work in emerging markets. Using a $2000 LEO phased array antenna, even if subsidised to $500 and charging $100 a month will not work in Africa, South America, or South East Asia. The consumer broadband market will be mostly addressed by terrestrial wireless where towers are available or GEO HTS. CurvaNet will be there for those who cannot afford GEO HTS.
VIA SATELLITE: How do you see the mix of LEOs and GEOs going forward in the overall satellite eco-system?
Choi: I believe LEO, MEO and GEO satellites will all have their niches. GEO will dominate video, DTH and consumer broadband. SES has shown that MEO can provide reliable telecom backhaul. The fact they can deliver 1 Gbps to a ship is very impressive and they own this segment on their own for now. As I said before LEO system probably will have an advantage in providing low latency mobility services. CurvaNet will be there for people who have very little income levels. It will be interesting to see the next 10 years on how these constellations will evolve and find their segments.
VIA SATELLITE: Were you influenced by SpaceX in any way and what they have done?
Choi: Elon Musk is brilliant and inspirational. I was one of the early believers of SpaceX. After meeting him a couple of times more than a decades ago I didn’t doubt that he could make the Falcon 9 successful. This is why ABS committed very early to take 2 launches from SpaceX. This decision maybe obvious now but back in 2012 he had more doubter than believers in our industry. He clearly has ambition and has demonstrated time and time again that he can execute his vision so along with many others he has my respect and admiration. That being said the plans for CurvaNet are not inspired by SpaceX. We have a mission to connect the unconnected either by broadband wireless from towers, GEO satellites or LEO satellites. This is what I have been doing since 1990 more than a decade before SpaceX was founded. CurvaNet is another optimized tool for that mission.
VIA SATELLITE: You mentioned that a top 10 country is very close to signing and backing this project. Is there any danger if that does not happen, it could delay the project?
Choi: We are in negotiations with three countries out of the top ten. So far the indications are that one of them are in a leading position to back this program through the most challenging phase of the program where we are planning to de-risk the investment. We will know by this summer. We are also on a parallel path of raising equity as well so soon or later CurvaNet will be launched.
VIA SATELLITE: Is CurvaNet the most ambitious satellite project you have undertaken, given the lack of success of others?
Choi: I like big challenges and achieving big results. I created Speedcast which ultimately became one of the biggest satellite service companies. I created and ran ABS the first commercial company to become global since PanAmSat going from 1 satellite in orbit to 7 in 10 years with no government backing me. As part of the expansion, I funded ABS-2, a $380M satellite program with zero equity but with $200M customer CondoSat payments and EXIM debt. Now with Curvalux we built a high-tech wireless business from scratch and secured one of the biggest mobile operators in the world in open competition against the biggest wireless technology companies and defeated them. Those challenges were bigger than our plans for CurvaNet. We already know how to build the satellites, payloads, and user terminals and most importantly we have spoken with more than 100 global customers who told us they will buy the services. Maybe things are getting easier with more experience. If your question refers to the challenges of making a LEO satellite business successful, I would say there are already successful LEO systems in the market such as Iridium, Globalstar, and OrbComm. I believe the key to any business is understanding your customers, their needs and building a solution that serves their requirements. I have spent 25 years providing satellite and wireless broadband in emerging markets so CurvaNet is designed based on the needs of those people.
Read the full article as seen in VIA SATELLITE: https://www.satellitetoday.com/business/2021/03/16/outspoken-leo-critic-tom-choi-details-plans-for-new-curvanet-constellation/