[Via Satellite 09-16-2015] LeoSat, a burgeoning satellite operator with plans to build a constellation of 78 to 108 small, High Throughput Satellites (HTS) in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), has appointed Mark Rigolle as its new CEO. The announcement comes after its former CEO Vern Fotheringham departed after only six months with the company.
Rigolle guided O3b Networks in raising $1.2 billion to build and launch its first eight satellites, and also co-founded Kacific — a company planning to launch a Ka-band HTS spacecraft serving the Pacific market. In an interview with Via Satellite, Rigolle discussed his leadership style, the state of LeoSat, and the company’s objectives on the way to launching its constellation.
Via Satellite: Given your experience with other HTS systems, what would you say is the most important thing you learned that you bring to the LeoSat team?
Rigolle: For me it’s the attitude of a startup. It doesn’t matter if you want to build an app, a satellite constellation, a molecule that cures Alzheimer’s or whatever. You need to get the basics right. You need to make sure your timetable for development is right, that there is rigor in the planning and execution of producing whatever you are making. You have to continue to make sure you are listening to customers and future customers, you need to get the funding lined up, and you need to transition to becoming cash-flow positive.
Via Satellite: Are there any changes you anticipate making at LeoSat under your leadership?
Rigolle: My leadership style is not one of “big ego come in and change things.” What I found is a project that is becoming a company and, like any startup that I’ve ever worked at, a lot of stuff still needs to happen. We will do that as a team and with respect to everyone working there as well as both existing and future shareholders. Don’t expect sweeping change, but expect a lot of hard work and very concrete results.
Via Satellite: Can you give an update on LeoSat as it evolves from an idea to a company?
Rigolle: The state we are in is that we have a situation whereby we’ve received confirmation from Thales Alenia Space that from a technical point of view, this can be built to the specs that we need to really offer the solution that we are trying to bring to market. We’ve done the market research that is necessary to get comfortable; there is a market out there at the price point we are thinking about. What we now have to do is build an organization, which is roughly more or less the same kind of task I had at O3b, and line up the financing.
Timing is important. In O3b we were raising the funding in 2009 to 2010 just after Lehman Brothers and all that. It was probably not the best possible timing to raise $1.2 billion. Now markets are hopefully more open than that, especially since we will be raising larger amounts. The phase we are entering now is where we turn the project into a company. We need to start raising serious equity. We are going after more institutional money.
Via Satellite: When complete, LeoSat is to provide fully operational data connections anywhere on Earth without the need for terrestrial landings or transport. Can you explain how this would be done?
Rigolle: If you are going from one continent to another continent over our system, you’ll be able to do that faster than you can direct via fiber. Terrestrial systems are a patchwork. It’s not the undersea cable that is the problem, it is the fact that if you have a landing point in California and a landing point in Japan, to get to that landing point you have to go through a few Points of Presence (PoPs), and that makes it difficult to get the fastest possible speeds. Our network will be up in Los Angeles, and will use inter-satellite links using optics. This is existing technology that’s been tried and tested — it’s just never been done this way.
Via Satellite: Do you have any demo satellites planned ahead of the 2019 to 2020 launch frame for the larger constellation?
Rigolle: One of the things that I’m personally expecting people to say is that “oh this is science fiction,” or “that’s never been proven.” Certain large GEO operators even wrote white papers on why O3b would never work. But it does.
We will prove what we say we can do. The idea is that we will launch two satellites and demonstrate that it works. And because we are in a fixed-plane polar orbit, we will target certain applications that don’t require contiguous coverage and could be ok with data being sent up to the satellites and coming down somewhere else later on. I’m thinking of scientific research at the poles, for instance, or seismic data being produced at the poles. That’s the kind of stuff we will be able to do with our first few satellites. We will be providing a proof of concept to those who said this can’t be done, and we will start generating — not huge amounts — but some revenue quite early on. Then we will add more satellites to offer more incremental coverage.
Whereas O3b has coverage over the equator and creeps up north and south from that, … our coverage is built at the poles. That’s where the satellites come closest to each other. As we add satellites to our different planes, our coverage creeps down from the North Pole and up from the South Pole. We will close the coverage gap at the poles once we have 78 satellites.
Via Satellite: From LEO you will have a latency advantage. What kind of latency do you anticipate having?
Rigolle: It’s just a matter of distance. O3b is four times closer than GEO. We are five times closer to Earth than O3b in their MEO orbit, about 1,400 kilometers. You are talking about a round-trip time of a matter of tens of milliseconds. If you add in a few hops satellite to satellite, then you can add a few more tens of milliseconds. You should be able to get from Tokyo to New York in less than 100 milliseconds, which you cannot do with fiber and no satellite system can.
Via Satellite: Vern Fotheringham mentioned LeoSat would very likely be a customer of Kymeta (his former company). Is that something LeoSat is still looking at?
Rigolle: It is in any satellite operator’s interest to ensure that there is diversity and competition in provisioning their ground system. So it makes no sense at all to go exclusive. What makes sense for us is for companies like Kymeta and Phasor — and maybe more — to continue to develop their products, get price points down, performance up, and go to sell in an open competitive market.
We are looking to build an ecosystem of suppliers around our solution where everyone will make money if they have a good product at the right price point and where the customers ultimately benefit.