Transcelestial is Tackling the Global Internet Distribution Problem

Will a startup solve the global Internet distribution problem before SpaceX?

With more than 3 billion people across the world living without Internet connections in an age when most people cannot imagine their lives without it, Rohit Jha and Dr Mohammad Danesh founded Transcelestial in 2016 and set out on the path to build an affordable technology that could offer connectivity to far-flung places where traditional cable Internet deployment is extremely expensive.

Not only is it important to increase Internet penetration, but there is also a need to improve its speed and capacity. As more and more people around the world lean on digital tools to communicate, whether through video conferencing platforms, or through social media, the amount of data generated each day keeps increasing at a ming boggling rate.

Almost 90% of the data in the world was generated between 2016 and 2018, and Jha expects the exponential growth in data generation to continue. According to the World Economic Forum, 463 exabytes or approximately 485.5 million TB of data, the equivalent of 212,765,957 DVDs, will be generated every day by 2025, creating the need for much higher speeds of connectivity than currently available.

In fact, due to the global lockdowns and movement restrictions, COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of Internet and digital tools, as majority of the people work from home and rely on conferencing platforms to communicate with each other.

“We were expecting something like what’s happening now due to COVID-19 to happen a few years later, where people have started to become more and more dependent on digital tools for communication like video conferencing,” says Jha.

“COVID-19 has been quite an eye opener, not only in terms of health care, but also in terms of connectivity,” he adds.

Jha, the Co-founder and CEO of Transcelestial, first met his co-founder Dr Mohammad Danesh after joining Entrepreneur First, a talent investor that brings exceptional individuals together and helps them build startups based on their expertise.

Jha and Danesh discussed global connectivity issues and concerns about connectivity in space as humans venture deeper into the unknown. But before tackling the challenge of Internet connectivity in space, it was necessary to improve global connectivity, especially since the average global Internet penetration rate was only 59% as of January, 2020.

They soon realized that stable, high-speed Internet connections are reserved for deep-pocketed urbanites who can afford to pay higher prices. This leaves a large chunk of the population, especially in countries like India, largely disconnected, or with poor network connections.

Problem with the current Internet supply model:

At present, Internet-enabled devices receive connectivity through three main mediums:

  1. Inter & Undersea Cables: Data hosted in other countries or continents like video conference calls, or YouTube videos, is transmitted through massive transcontinental fiber-optic cables placed at the bottom of the ocean. These cables carry almost 99% of the world’s data, according to Transcelestial.
  2. Inter & Intracity fiber: Once the undersea cables reach land, telecoms and governments build hundreds of kilometres of national fiber grids to carry this data to larger cities and smaller towns. Larger cities usually have a mini-grid of core fiber further bringing data to municipalities.
  3. Last Mile Connectivity: Finally, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), telecoms, and other providers then take this data and use fiber and wireless technologies like mmWave, 4G, and others to deliver it to homes, offices, hospitals, schools, and cell towers.

This model, however, has inherently high rollout costs since physically laying down cables involves infrastructural changes and extensive manpower. In turn, this discourages telecom operators and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from extending connections to rural areas since the low demand and limited spending capacity of people in those regions makes such large investments unattractive.

Transcelestial’s Last Mile Connectivity Solution

Streaming or broadcasting videos like watching movies on Netflix, or videos on YouTube require high speed Internet connections, which are currently made possible through fiber optic cables, inside which a laser carries data in the form of light.

Alternatively, Internet can also be accessed through traditional wireless technology that has existed for over a hundred years and was first used for radios. According to Jha, this technology has plateaued in terms of its speed capacity.

“The technology has reached a limit on how much speeds it can support. An example of that is if you have a router WiFi router in your living room, and you go to your bedroom, you stop getting Internet, or it actually is quite bad,” says Jha.

Device ranges have become shorter, and the technology has reached its limit as dictated by the laws of physics, he adds.

Therefore, the world is slowly moving toward fiber optic cables to cater to the demand for high-speed connections. However, fiber optic cables are expensive to deploy, as they need to be installed underground.

Singapore-headquartered Transcelestial, therefore, looked for a wireless solution that could provide high-speed Internet connectivity that was affordable to deploy. Instead of having lasers transmit data through a cable, the startup developed a laser-based wireless technology-enabled device the size of a shoe box, which allows lasers to transmit data through the open air.

According to the company, the device can create a wireless distribution network between buildings, traditional cell towers, street-level poles and other physical infrastructure. Essentially, this device can be placed at a telecom operator’s building and any building that requires Internet connection, and telecom operators can transmit data to its counterpart without having to invest in setting up costly cell towers or laying down fiber optic cables.

In fact, Jha claims that Transcelestial’s solution can be deployed at 1/10th the cost of deploying fiber Internet. The startup’s target market is telecom operators who are looking to cut down on Internet deployment costs.

CENTAURI, Transcelestial’s proprietary device, weighs less than 3 kg and can deliver true fiber-like speeds to customers. The device is a rapidly deployable, affordable, low cost, and high-speed Last Mile Connectivity solution that can speed up the adoption of 4G and 5G globally, according to Jha.

The startup has developed two models of CENTAURI in-house – 1 Gbps Full Duplex (4G & Enterprise ready) and 10 Gbps Full Duplex (5G-ready).

Transcelestial Centauri
The CENTAURI, Transcelestial’s proprietary shoebox-sized wireless Internet device. Image courtesy of Transcelestial.

Jha says that the startup will continue research and development (R&D) of the underlying technology for the next decade, with the core focus fixed on expanding the technology’s bandwidth. The startup’s 10Gbps model is capable of transferring HD movies in one second, but the team is currently working to increase capacity such that it will be able to transfer 4K movies in one second.

However, while research and development can enable the company to provide unheard-of speeds over distances of 10km, Jha says the current market and industry is not ready to pay for such speeds.

CENTAURI can accelerate 4G and 5G adoption

While digging hundreds of kilometers to lay down cables to provide Internet can be costly, the cost of setting up cell towers is no less. The world has been breathlessly awaiting the launch of 5G technology that promises previously-unimaginable Internet speeds, but 5G is a short-range technology with a range of about 1,000 feet, less than 2% of 4G’s range.

This means that to provide 5G Internet connections, telecom operators have to set up about 40 million new cell towers around the world, and the underlying fiber optics, pushing the cost of 5G deployment to sky-high levels.

According to a Deloitte analysis, the U.S. alone needs to invest between $130 and $150 billion in fiber infrastructure by 2024.

This offers Transcelestial a huge opportunity to pitch their wireless laser technology to telecom operators. Their offering would allow telcos to deploy 5G with a fraction of the investment required for fiber cable deployment or new cell towers.

Transcelestial team
The Transcelestial team. Image courtesy of Transcelestial.

CENTAURI can therefore make 5G affordable for consumers, while lowering the cost of ISPs, and drive adoption of 5G faster than fiber cables, which take years to deploy.

An Ambitious Plan

Since the earth’s surface is curved, to connect cities that are hundreds of kilometers apart using wireless laser technology, a chain of CENTAURIs have to be built across the distance.

However, it would be easier to connect the cities using a Space Laser Network, whereby data would be transmitted to a satellite, which would in turn transmit it to different cities and countries around the world, as long as there is a ground station to receive the signal.

This would bypass the physical infrastructure requirement for Internet deployment, and can help provide high speed Internet at a low cost.

The Transcelestial team believes that an orbit-based distribution approach can resolve the first two global Internet distribution problems, and is working to develop a constellation of small satellites in Low Earth Orbit with the aim of delivering ultra-high-speed backbone network connectivity.

This network would be completely autonomous and would require minimal human interaction or intervention.

The Transcelestial team believes that an orbit-based distribution approach can resolve the first two global Internet distribution problems, and is working to develop a constellation of small satellites in Low Earth Orbit with the aim of delivering ultra-high-speed backbone network connectivity.

Jha explains the mechanism of Internet connectivity through a space network: Let’s say, you have a YouTube server with YouTube videos sitting in California. Transcelestial would place a device there which would take the data and convert it to laser light and shoot it into space.

Transcelestial’s satellite would then take the data and forward it to the next satellite using lasers again, until it reaches the satellite over Asia. The satellite over Asia would then transmit the data down to the city in the intended country, and the receiving device would convert the laser light back into usable data.

This makes it different from SpaceX’s Starlink program in which satellites offer only uplink and downlink, and no Internet connectivity between satellites. Jha calls these satellites ‘WiFi terminals from space,’ which directly broadcast signals from space, and therefore require a phased array antenna above the buildings to receive the data.

Moreover, Starlink provides speeds between 36Mbps and 60Mbps, which Jha believes is insufficient for meeting future global demands for data. Transcelestial, on the other hand, expects to be able to scale its downlink speed from 10-20Gbps to 100Gbps, with a total initial stable capacity of network of 70Tbps.

This in turn reduces the cost of Internet supply and can match the data capacity and speed of under-sea cables. The startup aims to put around 700-800 satellites into orbit for its space network and is engaged in acquiring the talent to build these satellites and its R&D.

The details of Transcelestial’s space network program will be revealed in November, Jha says.

Funding and Expansion Plans

According to Jha, the startup has been testing its product in Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, South Korea and Singapore since last year.

While the startup aims to go deeper in these countries, in the next 18 months, it is also looking to expand to other countries in the APAC region like India, Myanmar, Cambodia, Japan, and Australia, as well as other regions facing connectivity issues like the Middle East, Africa, Central Europe, and South America.

Transcelestial had raised $1.8 million in Seed funding in December 2017 to develop CENTAURI in stealth, and raised another $9.6 million in a Series A funding round in July this year.

The startup is backed by renowned investors including EDBI, the venture capital (VC) arm of Singapore Economic Development Board, Wavemaker Partners, Entrepreneur First, SEEDS Capital, Airbus Ventures, the VC arm of the world’s largest airliner manufacturer, Cap Vista, the strategic investment arm of the Defence Science and Technology Agency of Singapore, and tech-focused investment firms Partech Ventures and Tekton Ventures.

According to Jha, the startup has raised enough capital to continue its R&D into its core laser wireless technology and will continue to use it to deliver higher bandwidth models as per market demand.

Header image by NASA on Unsplash.

SHARE THIS STORY