Some of the most path-breaking innovation in recent times has centered around the internet — be it internet of things, connected devices, augmented and virtual reality or cloud. Paradoxically, internet connectivity continues to be a challenge in many parts of the world. And this is the very challenge that Neha Satak and Prasad Bhat are trying to solve through their start-up, Astrome.
Founded in 2015, Astrome is a technology company that aims to provide high-speed broadband internet from space. Over the past three years, the team at Astrome has been working hard at perfecting the core technology of their microsatellite, which will provide high-speed internet connection of 100 Gigabits per second (as opposed to current capacity of 8-10 Gbps) with their patented MM wave technology. “Our MM wave technology transmits information in the form of radio waves whose wavelengths are a few millimeter long. Traditional cellular systems also transmit information in the form of radio waves, but those waves have longer wavelengths. The product we are developing will have 10 times higher data transmission capacity than any of the products that are available,” says Satak.
The start-up currently has a working lab hardware, which demonstrates this high-speed connectivity in a controlled environment. In 2019, Astrome plans to launch one test satellite, and a constellation of 200 microsatellites in the low earth orbit (LEO) by 2020. Once launched, Astrome will be able to provide internet connectivity in any developing country in a cost effective manner. Although launching satellites is expensive, just four satellites will cover the entire length and breadth of India. Compare that to the number of mobile towers that would be required to do the same and it is easy to understand why beaming internet from space is a better solution than optic fibre cables. Similarly, a satellite serving users in India now, might serve users in Indonesia a few minutes later, and go over South America a few more minutes later.
Satak explains that fibre concentrates the capacity to a particular region while satellites distribute it over a very large area. “If you want to provide broadband internet to 1 sq km area, you need to spend $30,000 on laying fibre and that piece of infrastructure is limited to that region only. The cost of covering the same area through Astrome’s satellite is less than $2.” Similarly, for Astrome, the per Mbps infrastructure cost is $34, which is 4x lower than fibre cable ($133).
With the evolution of technology, the cost of buying parts to build a microsatellite has gone down from $2 million to $25,000 over the past few years. Also, companies such as Vector Launch and Rocket Lab have substantially reduced the cost of launching a microsatellite in space. These companies charge between $1.5 million and $5 million. Larger companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX charges $62 million on average to launch a satellite.
In semi-urban and rural areas, space-based internet is 100x cheaper than any of the current methods of internet delivery. “In urban areas, terrestrial [connectivity] is cheaper. But for remote and rural areas, it becomes several fold higher in cost,” says TV Ramachandran, president, Broadband India Forum.
In a presentation on Satcom Policy made during World Telecom Day 2017, Ramachandran wrote that the use of satellite for broadband becomes absolutely imperative, considering that globally almost 51% of the commercial satellites are dedicated for communication, while that for India is only 22%.
Rahul Papney, principal analyst, BIS Research, adds, “To make a satellite launch mission viable, the overall operation cost (inclusive of satellite, bandwidth and spectrum) should make economic sense for an operator. This suits perfectly well while launching constellations of small and microsatellites, which offer cost saving advantage in terms of satellite manufacturing and launch. You can literally piggyback them in rockets carrying bigger satellites.”
Astrome’s work is already being recognised. The start-up is covering all of South and South East Asia, Africa, South America, Central America, Middle East and Australia, as well as major shipping routes.
For the duo, it all started at Indian Institute of Science’s Innovation Centre where they met while pursuing their masters. They were part of a common microsatellite project called Aerosat. Though they parted ways, the seeds of the idea had already been sown, and both were determined to get back to the space sector and contribute something meaningful.
“Incidentally, we were both talking to one professor in IISc, Seetharama Bhat, about our ideas. He suggested that we both should get together and start something,” recalls Bhat with a laugh. Taking his advice, Satak and Bhat briefly worked on a research and development consultation project for a US-based company, and later went on to start Astrome.
The founders began looking at critical problems that needed to be solved, and internet connectivity happened to be the obvious answer. Bhat adds that they observed a very strong disparity in the availability of internet in urban and rural areas. “This is primarily because, if a telecom company puts a tower in an urban area, they will get 1,000 users, whereas if they put the same tower with the same expense in a rural area, they will get just five to 10 users. The economics don’t work well. Also, while a satellite can cover an area of 1,000-1,500 km diameter, a tower covers hardly a kilometer of radius. We thus realised that space is the best way to solve this problem,” says Bhat.
Getting the basics right
Satak states that they spent about six to eight months researching the idea and fine-tuning it. “We noted that technology has evolved enough to support our vision,” she says, referring to an early 90s instance, wherein Motorola had launched a constellation of 66 satellites called Iridium that gave a speed of just 2 Mbps. “The challenge was to build a satellite constellation that could meet the growing demand for data in developing countries at costs that would also make business sense in the long term. It could be achieved only if we built satellites that have a capacity of 100 Gbps or more,” says Bhat.
Companies such as OneWeb and SpaceX are planning to launch 900 microsatellites to cover the entire globe. In comparison, Astrome’s decision to launch 200 microsatellites was based on parameters such as how wide a beam can be formed with a satellite, what kind of clearance will be required from the ground receiver and how many satellites will be required to cover that area.
Bhat says that from their estimate, their constellation will address about 1% of the market globally, which means there is tremendous growth potential. According to Satak, Facebook’s Aquila and Google’s Project Loon have a short lifespan. So they would need to connect to another satellite and that satellite could be Astrome’s. Additionally, Astrome’s satellite capacity is 12x more than any of its competitors.
Clearly, the opportunity was huge, and the enormity of the task at hand is something the Astrome founders realised right at the beginning. “So we broke down the project into different phases — first fix the technology and then get it working in fixed phases: lab, outdoor and finally space,” says Bhat.
What helped the founders tremendously was the faith bestowed by IISc in their vision. The institution not only gave them access to office space, but also an entire ecosystem of professors who handheld them in the initial phase and helped them connect to potential investors.
“Society for Innovation and Development’s STEM Cell incubates deep science start-ups that are commercially viable as well as have societal impact. Astrome fitted the bill perfectly. Here was a company that could revolutionalise the way broadband would be delivered to the end users, anytime, anywhere. The founders being IISc alumni and entrepreneurs with a passion to make a difference, made our decision to incubate them easy,” says CS Murali, chairman, STEM Cell.
IISc also invested an undisclosed amount in Astrome. The start-up also raised funds from two angel investors, received funding of Rs.3 million from the Karnataka Government in 2017 and an Indo-US grant from Indo-US Science and Technology Forum. But Satak adds that raising funds wasn’t as easy as it would have been for a consumer-focused start-up. “For us, it is important to make potential investors aware of what is happening in the ecosystem. Even if the idea looks exciting, it requires a certain amount of confidence to invest in a hardware start-up because the cycles are longer,” she says.
It took about two years for the 20-member team at Astrome to get the hardware right. While some parts have been fabricated outside India, most of the manufacturing is done in India. Fortunately, the technology development and proving phases required about 10x less capital than if it had been manufactured in a developed country.
The founders refuse to share the selling price, but are confident of breaking even within two years of launching their microsatellites. They hope that with the launch, satellite internet infrastructure would become an integral part of telecom networks.
“Right now, satellites such as geostationary satellites are used once in a while. But with our price point, it will become an integral part,” says Bhat. This is primarily because geostationary orbits are at an altitude of 36,000 km and give low capacity and high latency. However, satellites launched today are in the low earth orbit at about 1,000 km height and gives low latency and faster speed. Thanks to this, watching a high-definition video in a village or making a video call is possible without a lag.
“In the present scenario, internet driven platforms such as IoT, machine-to-machine network are gaining importance in areas that do not have mobile terrestrial coverage or other forms of connectivity, even though they are sparsely populated areas with important economic activities,” explains Papney.
The revenue for Astrome would largely come in from three sources. Firstly, home users who can access the internet via just an antenna and a router. Satak says, “Compared with existing satellite internet options, we will be significantly cheaper. If you are comparing with ground infrastructure-based internet, our prices will be at par with the prices in urban areas today. However, the quality and reach of our service will be much better.”
Second source would be telcos. “This is a booming industry called satellite backhaul. Partnership with telcos is a possibility after we demonstrate the technology from space,” says Satak. Instead of laying fibre optics cable to their towers in rural areas, they can simply have an equipment similar to home users and connect to the satellite for backhaul. The satellite can then patch the network. “Satellite can give connectivity even in points where you cannot reach by fibre or any other conventional mode. Essentially, the satellite will help telcos to reach those points and deliver traffic into their network. Telcos would be receptive to this as it means incremental business for them,” says Ramachandran.
The third use-case is a third-party service, wherein a partner can sell Astrome’s satellite capacity to home users. Astrome is thus looking at a B2C as well as B2B revenue model. “Just the way direct-to-home TV helped television penetrate the most remote places in India, Astrome’s technology would do the same by delivering broadband at very low tariffs. With no last mile infrastructure required, Astrome can cover all of India and several other countries in a very short period. As such, the impact on education and healthcare can dramatically change lives,” says Murali. Home users can expect speeds upto 50 Mbps and business can expect upto 400 Mbps.
But there is one major challenge for the founders to overcome before the pilot launch. And that is permissions, which Satak chooses to be tight-lipped about due to privacy concerns. She does explain that launching something in space requires the permission of international as well as government bodies. “It is a progressive journey and we are on the right track. We would love to start [our services] from India. But it really depends on several factors falling into place,” she says.
Meanwhile, competition is on the rise. Facebook and Google, too, have been working on launching satellites for faster internet connectivity. But Satak adds, “We have filed patents for whatever we have developed. I wouldn’t say people aren’t trying to do this. But it is up to us to stay ahead. We also have a technical roadmap where we will keep innovating further.”
Post 2020, the start-up plans to focus on getting customers lined up, contracts signed and generating revenue. Meanwhile, the team is working on building satellites with better throughputs (the total volume of the data that is allowed to be transferred — both upload and download activity). “Satellites have a lifespan of five to eight years. So instead of waiting for five years for everything to be replaced, we will upgrade our technology and keep launching five new satellites every year,” says Satak. It remains to be seen if Astrome manages to successfully stick to its timelines, but one thing is for sure: the founders are aiming for the sky, and could well land among the stars.