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Vern Fotheringham Speaks About New LEO Broadband Project

By Caleb Henry | March 4, 2015
Vern Fotheringham

Vern Fotheringham, CEO of Leosat. Photo: Kymeta

[Via Satellite 03-04-2015] Former Kymeta CEO Vern Fotheringham has joined startup company Leosat to lead it in building a constellation of High Throughput Satellites (HTS) in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). As CEO, he will guide the creation of a constellation expected to provide 1.2 Gbs of synchronous connections worldwide for business and government customers.

Speaking with Via Satellite, Fotheringham said the constellation is expected to range from 80 to 120 small satellites, with launches beginning in either 2019 or 2020. In a statement, he described Leosat as having a significant head start over other new entrants seeking to build large Non Geosynchronous (NGSO) satellite broadband systems.

Former Schlumberger executives Cliff Anders and Phil Marlar founded the company in 2013. They have been paving the way for the constellation by gathering regulatory approval and collaborating with contractors, satellite equipment manufacturers and consultants. Leosat has been establishing what its network architecture, satellite payloads and spectrum needs will be in preparation of launching the project.

“There is a tremendous amount of work that has been done already. This is not just a new PowerPoint idea to go build a new LEO constellation; this is serious work that has been underway for a number of years,” said Fotheringham.

Fotheringham declined to mention who has partnered with Leosat so far, but assured that the company is leveraging the knowledge of well known experienced firms. He did confirm that Kymeta would likely play a big role in making Leosat’s proposed constellation a success.

“It is certainly my intent to become a customer of Kymeta and leverage everything we’ve learned in the electronic beam forming antenna solutions over the last several years. This is a chance for me to move to the other side of the equation and be a user rather than a supplier,” said Fotheringham.

He added that, at present, Leosat contemplates a Ka-band constellation and estimates it to cost approximately $2.5 to $3 billion to complete. According to the company’s website, the satellite system will be global in coverage and non-reliant upon terrestrial landings or transport. Data would be encrypted and secured from end to end.

“It is a fully processor-supported, fully mesh constellation in plane and between planes, so there is a lot of new turf being plowed here for very high bandwidth LEO communications,” said Fotheringham.

From LEO, the satellites are expected to achieve latency below 50 milliseconds, making sensitive applications such as voice services feasible. According to Leosat, it will be able to provide 4G backhaul and comply with Long Term Evolution (LTE) standards. Key markets include energy, mobility, maritime and enterprise. In contrast to other large broadband initiatives from companies such as O3b Networks, Facebook and Google, Leosat’s focus is not on bringing Internet access to the masses, but rather to the most lucrative customers.

“It’s a high end system for high end users solving very essential communications problems that are unmet today. It’s being inserted where the holes are. Find the gaps in the market and optimize the system to address those gaps. That’s where you’ll find Leosat,” said Fotheringham.

Leosat is the third SmallSat “mega constellation” announced since the beginning of the year. OneWeb, previously known as WorldVu, plans a constellation of approximately 650 satellites, and SpaceX intends to build a network of 4,000. All of these new ventures have to answer to the “ghost of Teledesic,” a company with similar ambitions in the 1990s that failed to launch a constellation of 840 spacecraft. Fotheringham said that advances in ground segments, interlinking satellites and new business opportunities created by the Internet make a large scale constellation today much more appropriate.

Christopher Baugh, president and founder of NSR, is enthusiastic about these new constellation prospects. “This is an exciting time in the satellite industry, with technology driving increased demand, costs coming down and several notable players such as Google, SpaceX and OneWeb helping to fuel the category,” he said in a written statement. “Leosat is positioning its service offerings primarily on potentially lucrative business and government market opportunities. There is a big international market to be served by a unified global broadband network with significant revenue potential at stake.”