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Omnispace CEO Determined to Defy Convention with 5G Satellite Constellation

By | February 5, 2021

    Omnispace CEO Ram Viswanathan (Photo: Omnispace)

    Omnispace makes it very clear that it’s business case is not a satellite backhaul service for 5G. It is an actual 5G service delivered through a massive pipeline of 2 GHz spectrum beamed from a constellation of Low- and Medium-Earth Orbit (LEO/MEO) satellites. Omnispace, a new entrant satellite operator based in Washington D.C., is going to provide 5G directly to devices. This goes against the grain of what a majority of the satellite industry believes is its role in the 5G wireless supply chain – that it is a situational sidekick, limited by physics and high costs.

    Instead, Omnispace, led by CEO Ram Viswanathan, will put satellites front and center of a hybrid 5G delivery system designed to leverage the power and scale of various space, virtual, and terrestrial technologies. It’s very unfortunate that the satellite and wireless industries have always had a zero-sum game type of approach to 5G,” said Viswanthan, whose past experience working with the former XM Satellite Radio network helped shape his view of space-based 5G.

    Omnispace’s network operates on the same principle as satellite radio — terrestrial repeaters, satellites, and cheap, low-profile antennas working together to create continuity of coverage. In this interview with Via Satellite, Viswanthan provides new details about how the Onmispace LEO/MEO constellation will unfold, the projected cost of the ground systems and antennas, network interoperability, and how the operator will price the service at rollout. He also talks about the company’s partnership with Intelsat, as well as soon-to-be revealed partnerships with other mobile operators and service distributors.

    VIA SATELLITE:If satellites can truly deliver 5G on their own, then why haven’t more satellite companies attempted to do what Omnispace is trying to do?

    Ram Viswanathan: Given its past roots, it’s understandable that the satellite industry has mostly built custom platforms for bandwidth and connectivity solutions. Leveraging those existing assets has forced most companies, in my view, to go down a path of looking largely at bent pipe, backhaul-oriented solutions. At Omnispace, we look at a satellite as part of the integrated 5G network architecture. When you loosen those constraints and start fresh from a clean sheet of paper, you reimagine a network which has multiple components that work seamlessly together in order to transit traffic. We don’t focus on backhaul at all. In our view, the big opportunity is really the connectivity solutions that go directly to the device. This requires a very different network architecture and technological roadmap than most satellite companies have historically pursued. 

    VIA SATELLITE: What comprises the different layers of your infrastructure? Can you outline how your satellites, virtual cloud layer, and ground systems will work with each other? 

    Viswanathan: I’ll start with the user segment. Customers will interact with our network on standardized devices operating in frequencies that are dual-mode between a standard terrestrial 4G and 5G environment. The most important aspect of our technology is that the user device is agnostic when it attaches to each element of our 5G network. Devices will be able to roam, so-to-speak, from satellite to terrestrial, or from terrestrial to satellite network elements.

    The next layer up is our virtualized 5G core network, which we can set up very quickly and cost effectively. This layer allows a global footprint to manage customers and traffic similarly to a standardized core network that a mobile operator would be using. In our case, that core also happens to interface with mobile network operators, such as Verizon or Vodafone. Regardless of which operator’s network you roll on to, we’ll be able to reconcile traffic and billing back to your home network. It’s essentially a visited network for MNOs.

    Finally, we have our space layer – the constellation of satellites. For us, the satellite is just a mechanism by which you create coverage in areas where cellular networks today don’t reach. Although it is a global coverage layer, we can densify the network as we need to, for purposes of capacity. It’s a relatively simple construct, and doesn’t have significant complexity to it.

    VIA SATELLITE: Why did Omnispace choose to use S-band over other mid-band frequencies like L-band or C-band, which has been a more popular choice for 5G?  

    Viswanathan:  S-band has some very special properties from a regulatory perspective. At the ITU [International Telecommunications Union], it is one of the very few spectrum bands allocated on a co-primary basis both to mobile satellite and mobile terrestrial services. That dual-use concept therefore is embedded in the regulatory framework at its very inception at the IP level. S-band is ideal to accommodate our type of hybrid network. If we’re able to use and re-use the same satellite spectrum on the ground, we’re then also able to drastically reduce device complexity and costs. S-band frequencies also tend to be more resilient to atmospheric attenuation, which is an imperative for satellite operations.

    The problem with L-band is that it doesn’t have a global allocation for terrestrial connectivity solutions in the spectrum bands. Consequently, it’s largely restricted. When you go to higher frequencies that are being considered for 5G, the performance of your user terminal starts to become much more complex and more costly, with phased array antennas costing many thousands of dollars. In contrast, Omnispace’s frequencies could be received by a system as simple as those shark fin antennas that you see on the back of cars for satellite radio. Those operate in 2.3 GHz.

    VIA SATELLITE: Will your antenna be as cheap and easy to produce as the “shark fin”?

    Viswanathan:  We operate in 2 GHz, so our antenna won’t be much different. It will be very small and very low cost – maybe between $5 and $10 per antenna. At scale, we anticipate that to be far lower when we’re leveraging the mobile ecosystem.

    VIA SATELLITE: You have the first two satellites of your constellation planned for launch on a SpaceX rideshare in early 2022. How many satellites are you planning for the full constellation? And how quickly do you think you’ll reach that number?

    Viswanathan:  We will not be one of those multi-thousand satellite constellations. Our constellation will probably be below 200 LEO satellites and less than 15 MEO satellites. We view the constellation size really as a function of the applications that we’re focused on delivering to the commercial markets, such as enterprise-centric IoT [Internet of Things], mobile IoT, voice and data applications. We can deliver those applications off of LEO and also MEO. We do have the ICO Global MEO satellite assets that we acquired at the inception of the company back in 2012. Overall, the satellite layer is going to be adequate to create the layer of coverage that we need, and the capacity that we need for the use cases that we intend to put it to. We expect to announce details about those specific needs later this year.   

    VIA SATELLITE: If you’re able to work in both LEO and MEO, couldn’t you theoretically give yourself the option of not having to build everything yourself, and instead, be interoperable with other space assets that you acquire?  

    Viswanathan:  Absolutely. We have a lot of potential synergies with other infrastructure and operators. We have a lot of different paths to build out that constellation in a cost effective manner, whether it’s a standalone one that we might run and operate on our own, or whether it might be potentially taking advantage of other infrastructure that’s going up into space.

    VIA SATELLITE: You have amassed a large group of technology partners. Moving forward, are you going to continue contracting most of your technical work out to partners? Or, are you going to do what some other companies have done and start bringing technology development in house slowly over time?

    Viswanathan:  Our general philosophical view is to keep the essential elements of our overall solution – core technology, business, and regulatory — in house to ensure that we have control, but to also lean on partnerships for the advanced technology. We feel this approach accelerates the timeframe to a service launch in a more efficient fashion. Being a startup satellite operator company involves significant staffing and high costs. That’s why we essentially partnered with Intelsat who manages a network 72 more satellites, and outsourced the satellite network operations to them. They can do it at scale far better than we can. We’re also working with other mobile operators and satellite solution providers that we haven’t announced yet. We’ve been working with them for over a year now, but we will be announcing those partnerships soon.

    VIA SATELLITE: Does this mean you’ll also be partnering with distributor networks to resell services in each market?

    Viswanathan:  We’re not going to be selling directly to end customers. We have a wholesale model. And as a consequence, we expect to have distribution arrangements with a wide variety of channels, including, in particular, mobile operators who want to extend their networks and provide a global solution to their enterprise customers. We will also work with traditional satellite solution providers who operate in the MSS [Mobile Satellite Service] and FSS [Fixed Satellite Service] industries. We might be working with some specialized distributors to package satellite connectivity solutions for our maritime customers and our other target verticals and market segments.  

    VIA SATELLITE: How do you set wholesale pricing for one of the first satellite 5G solutions available to the market, while remaining competitive with other terrestrial and hybrid 5G services?

    Viswanathan: We have not finalized our pricing, but it will be more akin to cellular pricing models, looking at a combination of both per-line access fees and use charges. This is why we’re doing these commercial pilots with mobile operators right now. It’s partly for technology validation, but equally, it is a validation of the commercial underpinnings of the offering, including pricing. I think we have a very unique opportunity to drive scale in the industry off of a level that’s never been seen in the satellite industry. The entire mobile industry comprises more than 6 billion wireless connections. Satellites make up a very small fraction of that. Our general view is the number of terminals and customers on our network will be more akin to a mobile operator than it is going to be a satellite operator.

    VIA SATELLITE: You just received $60 million in equity financing. Does OmniSpace have the funding it needs to achieve its long-term goals? Are you seeking more financing?  

    Viswanathan:  This recent funding covers all of our near-term initiatives, which includes the end-to-end technology validation for our IoT applications. While we haven’t made any final decisions, we do anticipate raising additional financing in the not-too-distant future that would be used to flesh out our space segment.  

    VIA SATELLITE: You have former Verizon Vice Chairman Lawrence Babbio on your board. Do you get insight from him as to whether or not terrestrial cellular companies actually believe that they can afford to build the infrastructure they need to roll out 5G to the scale and scope that they want, without a satellite pipeline?  

    Viswanathan:  Well, Larry does provide unique insights, but one of the broader, most valuable insights that our entire board has provided is that the traditional satellite model of providing backhaul is not the best way to capitalize on 5G. Satellites can provide a valuable enterprise IoT offering, which enables the mobile operators to extend the reach of their network. That’s a very different value proposition to them, which is only being delivered by Omnispace’s unique global hybrid solution.

    VIA SATELLITE: Intelsat CCO Samer Halawi also sits on your board. While Intelsat is one of your key partners, you did say that you’re going to partner with other operators. Does Omnispace plan to operate independently among these competing partners? Or, is there some sort of exclusivity that you’re giving to the early believers like Intelsat?

    Viswanathan:  Our partnership with Intelsat is mostly focused on the satellite operations side of our business. Given our unique 5G hybrid mobile offering, we’ve received a great deal of interest from a variety of different satellite operators, and we are indeed engaged in those discussions. We have not yet made any decisions as to which path we’re going to take. Because we’re employing a wholesale model, we do anticipate partnering with a variety of solution providers and potentially some operators that have a meaningful footprint in our target markets.