Charles Miller: Satellite Technology and the Future of Mobile Connectivity — #49

Steve Hsu: Welcome to Manifold today. My guest is Charles Miller. He is the founder and CEO of Lynk Global, a satellite communications company Charles and I have known each other. I hesitate to say this because it makes us seem old, but we've known each other for about 40 years now. I met him. He was a couple of years ahead of me, I think, or at least 1 year ahead of me. He was in Fleming house at Caltech and I was in page house and we've known each other since then. Charlie, welcome to the show.

Charles Miller: thanks to, thanks to be here, Steve. I got a little more gray hair than you. And maybe I'm wondering if you color your hair.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, I think if you look carefully, you can see some white hairs in here, but it's clean living, man. I, I'm, I'm living clean. So that's how I'm doing it in the aging department.

Charles Miller: Well, it's great to be here. I still treasure my memories from Caltech and the friends we made and, and, you know, that's been a part of my path to both, both of us for where we are today.

Steve Hsu: Yep, so I always start out by asking my guests about their, a little bit about their life history and how they got where they are today. For my audience, Charles has been involved in the commercialization of space for, you know, roughly the last 30 years and has been a pioneer in many ways. The company he's currently CEO of, he's going to tell us about is pioneering satellite communications from an ordinary cell phone.

So we'll focus on that. But Charles, tell us something about your background that maybe the listeners would find interesting.

Charles Miller: Well, my passion for space started before we ever knew each other before Caltech. I grew up loving space, reading science fiction, and wanting to be an astronomer. And in high school, I decided I was, I wanted to be an astronaut and I ended up going to Caltech with the purpose in mind to become an astronaut, be a mission specialist, not be a pilot.

I also applied to the Air Force Academy and got in, but decided I'd rather be a, you know, be a payload specialist, fly, fly to space, but always in the back of mind, it was of a larger mission. Because when I, I also grew up as a kid deciding I wanted to do something great with my life to make a difference and I thought I was going to do that through space.

I've been living out of that decision of that little kid for all my life. It's been 50 years. I was, I was in fifth grade when I decided I wanted to make a difference in my life and it was in space. I'm just You know, for my mom who passed away years ago, you know, I'm just really stubborn. I think I got that from her.

So I've been, you know, never give up, never surrender. Right. And so they have a saying, you know, knock down nine times, get up 10. And so I've been doing space all my life. I love what they do. the people I work with love what we do, and, and so that's been the overall arc, is we're, we're doing amazing things in space these days, the, the whole space industry has changed recently, but I've, I've seen the whole arc before, it was cool to be in space, right?

Now, maybe it was always cool to be in space, but it was commercial space, you know, investors would look at you strangely if you said you were doing that, and they would think you were in real estate, not in building rockets or satellites.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, so let's talk about that a little bit. So, you know, now correct me if I'm wrong. I have a perception of it being a little bit pre-Elon and post-Elon in the sense that, you know, prior to Elon, there would be a lot of people like you and me who are kind of nerdy. guys who love space, you know, space shuttle, you know, space station, stuff like that trips, you know, mission to Mars.

But I think most of the activity was either sort of national governments doing it or huge corporations, you know, Lockheed Martin or something like that and not much idea that the little guy could really get involved. And now we see this kind of renaissance where there are many smaller companies, typically venture-backed companies.

in the U. S. And also in China and other places that are trying to have a go of it in areas ranging from launch to, you know, microsatellites to commercial services like yours. How do you perceive that? Was there like a phase change because of Starlink and Elon or was it?

Charles Miller: Well, you're absolutely right, and I was actually part of that phase change. So back, you know, after I left Caltech and we were there in the early 80s and in the mid to late 80s and 90s, I was part of a small group of people, pirates kind of like revolutionaries, who said, we need to have much more private innovation in space. We need to have You know commercial space. We need to have what we call new space. We, in fact, helped invent the term new space. But for several decades when you wanted to start a space company, I knew a lot of the early pioneers. If you start a space company, they would go ask, you know, their, you know, friend at NASA. What do you think of this? And the government always didn't think commercial space people could do anything. And so they couldn't raise any money and space was the domain of governments, not private innovators. And so it was a big problem.

And so my first real startup in the nineties, we changed national space policy and law to force NASA to buy commercially. To buy commercial space station cargo delivery service. In fact, one of the first big breakthroughs of my life is that we passed a law called the Commercial Space Act of 1998 that required NASA after the shuttle was retired to buy commercial space station cargo delivery services.

They were not allowed to replace the shuttle to deliver cargo to the space station. And so when The Columbia was retired in 2003. NASA had to, under law, buy commercial cargo from commercial companies. Now, when we passed this law in 1998, we didn't know who was going to do it.

It turned out it was a guy named Elon, in 2008, 10 years later, got a $1.8 billion dollar contract because of the law we passed 10 years earlier.

Now, the fascinating thing here, Elon was within a month of running out of money. He had spent all his PayPal money. The housing market collapsed and nobody would invest in him. Everybody is invested in Elon now. He said, Elon says, I'll start a company and people throw checks at him.

But in 2008, he couldn't raise money. And he was within a month of Tesla and SpaceX going out of business. And the head of human space flight from NASA, a gentleman named Bill Gerstenmaier, who I, I know pretty well, used to work with. He called up Elon and said, Elon, you've won a 1. 8 billion dollar contract for space station cargo delivery.

And it saved SpaceX, and I actually think it saved Tesla as well, because he was able to immediately raise money for Tesla and SpaceX after he got that contract. So, there is a before Elon and after Elon, but I would argue it's before, you know, the revolutionaries changed national politics, policy and law.

If it hadn't been Elon, it would have been somebody else. We didn't know who it was going to be in 1998, but there is a major inflection point.

Steve Hsu: That's great history.

I was involved in the 1st Internet bubble right around 2000 and. So I could see a little bit of the earlier venture, venture capital landscape before that bubble happened. And boy, in the old days, you know, you would give up half your company and only raise half a million dollars to do a hardware startup or something.

It was blood, sweat, and tears to really start a company, you know, in the 1990s, for example, compared to today, it's just a totally different situation today. So I guess there are a lot of people like yourself who laid the groundwork for everything that we're enjoying now, which is a, which is a renaissance of innovation, wouldn't you say?

Charles Miller: It's a total renaissance of innovation. Lots of the ideas, great ideas being invested in by private investors today. They've been around for decades. Another thing is when you get these gray hairs. It's very few new ideas. You've, you know, now you get old ideas with little new tweaks to it that make them better and the technologies here.

Now, a lot of great ideas. It's just a matter of timing, right? It's been observed many times that this is a great idea, but maybe it's 10 years too early and you go back and look at things, the big breakthroughs in the 2000s, there were people who had those internet ideas in the 1990s. They were just a little early. And the same thing in space.

And so that's sometimes the hardest thing to get right.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, I got to tell you another story, which I don't know if I ever told you this story, but my co-founder, the co-founder of a company called SafeWeb, which was my first startup, he was my Ph.D. student when I was a professor at Yale and we started SafeWeb together. After we sold SafeWeb, we started another company and we wanted to do two factor authentication. But this was around 2004 ish and cell phones didn't yet have full penetration and, you know, some VCs couldn't quite see their way to that point.

So we built the first server that could actually send text messages. And would hook into a standard authentication infrastructure framework and people could then just store in addition to your standard password you know, a random or have a random key generated that then you would enter as your second factor.

So now, of course, it's like, totally,

Charles Miller: Well, that was a great idea, Steve. You're just

a little early.

Steve Hsu: We couldn't, we couldn't raise money. We couldn't, we, you know, we had just sold our company. We were successful entrepreneurs. Our previous startup was in security and encryption, and we just couldn't raise money there. There weren't people interested in it, or maybe we just weren't good enough to raise

Charles Miller: The fascinating part is. You know, messaging started in the early 2000s so it was taking off and nobody believed messaging would be a big business. Within a decade, it became a huge business. It was like 200 billion a year messaging revenue to him and others. Then it got disrupted by, you know, by WhatsApp and I message, right?

And you got given away free over your data channel. But until then, You know, you know, they, the mobile network operators, Verizon, AT& T, Timo type companies around the world may be making huge money on messaging and all kinds of things are being done on messaging.

Steve Hsu: Yeah. So we were just too early, but now everybody, of course, now I have to use this second factor five times a day to log into various websites. So let me just find the term MNO mobile network operator.

It's going to be very important for what we're going to discuss next, because those guys are primarily our customers right now at Lynk.

Is that

Charles Miller: Yeah, so there are partners there they, they they, and there's 5 billion mobile phone users in the world and almost all of them are through a phone company. You know, a mobile wireless company like AT & T or Verizon or. Or T-Mobile here in the United States. But there's 800 of them around the world.

There's, you know, 3, 4, 5 dominant MNOs in almost every country. And so they're, they're the, they're the big kahunas for the mobile wireless business. Which is about a trillion dollar a year business. You know, everybody talks about Apple. You know, and they sell a lot of mobile phones. But there's about 900 billion dollars a year of mobile wireless services sold a year.

And that's all through these mobile networks.

Steve Hsu: Yep. And what you would like to bring to them is the ability for someone with an ordinary phone, no matter where they are, they could be in the middle of Alaska, very far from any cell tower, and yet able to communicate through, I guess a low Earth orbit satellite, is that right?

Charles Miller: Well, that's what we're using you can actually and I think we're going to get into it. You can do it from satellites and higher orbits. You trade. There's some, you know, you lose something by doing that, but you can do it from higher orbits. So it's a fascinating discussion. You have to be in physics and I don't know if you're in physics, Steve, and we could talk about that.

but yeah, the best solution is in low Earth orbit. And that's an interesting geek question. reasons for that. But we're doing that and we're not planning to do it. We're already doing it. We're actually Lynk Lynk if anybody wants to look it up as L-Y-N-K dot world is the world's only proven and commercially licensed, satellite direct to standard mobile phone company in the world.

We invented tech. We actually have, are rolling it out, and we're, we have market access in five countries, we're rolling it out in multiple countries right now. We have signed contracts with 34 mobile network operators covering over 50 countries. And what this really means. And so for your audience, that almost everyone, I bet everybody in your audience has a mobile phone.

There might be one person who doesn't have a mobile phone, right? So in their pocket, if that's our satellites in orbit today can connect to your existing phone in your pocket. No change, right? And so we've proven that we're connecting to mobile phones in dozens of countries. We've, we've, we're licensed in 27 countries.

We're connecting to thousands of phones. we are, we're doing messaging and we're, and we're doing voice calls. and eventually we're gonna do broadband coverage everywhere. And so, the end in mind here is we've proven the tech that's coming for everybody is you are gonna stay connected everywhere in the world no matter what.

Right? So using, and you don't need to know it's a satellite. Your mobile network operator will choose the tower. And you'll just have a layer of ground based towers. You already have two layers today. You have a Wi Fi layer and a ground cellular network layer. And your phone picks among the two of them.

In the future, you'll have a third layer called the satellite layer. And your phone will just pick among the three of them. With that, you'll never even know it. You'll be connected to a satellite for your communication services. And you'll never even know it. Like today, many of your customers, your listeners today, Steve, don't even know they're connected to the satellite right now.

It's called GPS.

Steve Hsu: Yep.

Charles Miller: Right? People, people say, why do I need satellite services? I know where I am right now. Well, that's because your phone is connected to a satellite. It's listening to the, the global positioning system,

Right, right now.

Steve Hsu: Right. So, Charlie, I think you've explained to the listener now what Lynk is going to provide to the world. In other words, there won't be dead spots. There will be, no matter where you go on the planet, you're going to have a signal and your phone will do this automatically. you know, there may be some agreement between the MNO that you buy your phone service from and Lynk, but totally transparent potentially to the user, the individual person.

But tell us. The innovation that you guys had to produce, because I understand people did not believe you when you told them investors or early people, you know, before you, you've now proved out this technology, but long before you proved it out, I think, from first principles from physics, you said, Hey, this is possible using the existing antenna existing modem on the handset.

And how many years ago was that? And just just go through the journey for you as an

entrepreneur of

Charles Miller: Yeah. So great. And so this is for the entrepreneurs in the audience and most existing entrepreneurs know that every great breakthrough for a commercial business starts with finding, usually finding an inflection point where it creates new things that nobody people thought of before, right? And then you need to find a secret, right?

That nobody knows, right? If everybody knows it, then it's, you know, like all the ideas

have been wrung out.

You need to

Steve Hsu: it's all, it's all, priced in and there are 10 other guys

already doing it.

Charles Miller: Yeah, there's already 10 or 100 and then it's commoditized and you can't raise money. So you need to find something where conventional wisdom is wrong. Right? And so, we were looking for that.

The inflection point was Moore's Law came to space and was building small satellites. And it was basically the parallel to the personal computer revolution in the 70s, that Moore's Law came to computers on your desk. And nobody thought, well, You're never going to have it. You know, everybody has a computer on their desk.

That's crazy. Ken Olsen apocryphally said that, right? And then people in the 70s, late 70s, Steve, I remember this. I'm sure you do too. People said, what are you going to use a computer for? Mom's recipes? Maybe games? What else? Well... A whole bunch of killer apps emerged in the late 70s and early 80s, things like spreadsheets and desktop publishing and MCI mail.

The first internet connectivity program was 1984, seven years after the apple to, you know, laser printing, right? So all kinds of killer apps emerged. And so I, I had the thesis, the same thing was going to happen in satellites with Moore's law coming to satellites and small satellites. You can, the size of a shoebox have a supercomputer of what 20 years earlier was the size of a school bus, right?

And so this just was clearly going to happen. You just have to have faith. There's going to be some new emerging killer apps. And so I went, had a team looking for it. And, in 2014 we had one of the team members, Margo Deckard, my co-founder. She was looking, doing data analytics on the Ebola crisis in Africa and how satellites were being used to connect public health workers to try to cure people and, and prevent Ebola from spreading.

And so... She and I talked about it. We immediately knew that this didn't make sense. It couldn't scale. These things were, you know, 50 pounds in a backpack and big dish and you couldn't give every public health worker one

of these satellite dishes.


Steve Hsu: you're talking about Starlink,

no, just kidding.

Charles Miller: Well, it's the, the version of Starlink thin.

It's, yeah, it is kind of like Starlink. It was actually in Marsat Vegan Terminal, but Starlink's a little better than them, but it's the same issue. It's not

going to scale to everybody.

Steve Hsu: I was just kidding because it's still true though. That Starlink is, it is

Charles Miller: Yeah. It's a dish. And if you've, if you took the Starlink dish in the jungle, you would actually have to put a big battery in your backpack too. It's really expensive. It doesn't scale to everybody. Right. So. And so you can't put it in your pocket. And so we realized this and she did the data analytics for the donors to these nonprofits, trying to help with Ebola.

And, she discovered 80 percent of the public health workers were just doing messaging and they could do everything they wanted with just messaging. And so she was very bright. She knows her physics, the RF Link budget. And she knew, well, you can get, you know, you can get lower data rates, right?

With a smaller antenna. And she came to me and said, Hey, can you connect a satellite directly to an existing mobile phone? All you need to do is messaging. That would be a breakthrough killer app. And I turned to one of the other members of team Ty Spiedel, who's our CTO now. And I looked at him and I said, What do you think, Ty?

He goes, There is no way you can connect a satellite directly to a phone. And the issue is that you can always overpower the downLink from the satellite down to the ground. But the phone can't change, right? It's got a really dinky antenna. It's got 200 milliwatts of power. It's very low power. He just like his gut said, no way.

And I looked at him, I go, well, why not? And so he knew right then he had to go do the Lynk budget and ties very knowledgeable. And so he knows the Lynk budget of satellites, but You know, 10 years earlier, he didn't have any idea how to figure out the Lynk budget on the phone. But it's now all available on the internet.

So he just went home, put together the Lynk budget on both ends, with the satellite on one end and the phone on the other, and all the information about the processing gain and the RF Lynk for the antenna and the power of the phone is now easily available on the internet. And he put together the two way Lynk budget, and he came back the next day and he goes, Oh, I was wrong.

We can do this. And then the first thing we did is like, well, this is amazing. And, as you know, Steve, the most precious resource for an entrepreneur is your time. And you don't want to waste that. So it's like, well, we better get this right. Cause if we, if we're going to invest our time on this, we don't want to spend a year on this and find out we just got the math wrong.

So we went to a bunch of experts to ask them to check our math. So. Now, I worked at NASA for three years, a senior advisor for commercial space, and we had people on our team from NASA, former retired NASA engineers. We went to NASA JPL, the Deep

Space Network

Steve Hsu: Oh, I I've heard of that


Charles Miller: Yes. So they're, you might have heard of Pioneer, right, and Voyager, or V'ger if they say in Star Trek.

And so these satellites have left the solar system. So this is the proof. Physics is worse. You can connect to satellites outside the solar system and what people don't read, the data rate is really low, but you can close the Lynk two ways with Voyager and Pioneer. And so we went to them and said, you guys are world class RF engineers.

And their first reaction was, you can't close a connection to a

phone. that's, that's

That's like the same gut reaction, even really smart people should know better, right? And we said, here's our Lynk budget. Tell us what we missed. What's, where'd we get it wrong? And they came back the next day and they said we were wrong.

You, you could do this. So that's how it started. Now we had, that was 20, late 2014, early 2015, when we completed that diligence, asked a bunch of really smart people to prove. Now we had a couple other problems we had to figure out. So we were starting to focus all in on this, but the thesis here is like, no change of the phone.

There's been quite a few other people who are making satellite communications phones, and they add some device, they add a radio chip, they add a wrapper, they add a plug in gadget. and so we said, no, that this, the thesis here is no change of phone. If we have to change the phone, that's expensive.

Nobody's gonna want it. It's gonna be no uptake. We said, what if we could change the phone? Let's, like, that is the holy grail, no change of the phone. And so we invented two new things. First of all, we've invented. a frequency, innovative frequency use of how we use existing spectrum in the phone without causing harmful interference.

And basically if you remember your Star Trek, the Wrath of Khan, there's a scene in the movie where, where Captain Kirk is asking Commander Spock what he thinks about Con and he, and he says, he exhibits two dimensional thinking. Well, we live on a planetary surface and we have two dimensional thinking.

Steve Hsu: Right.

Charles Miller: And if you actually think about how cell towers operate, they're two dimensional, they're pointed over the flat, the surface of the earth, and they overlap each other. And you add a new cell tower, it overlaps the old cell towers. So they have rules of thumb like how much signal can transmit into the other area of the other cell tower without causing harmful interference.

And they created these rules. Well if you think about it, a beam coming down from space. Can plug into a black spot and it can overlap into the two dimensions of the cell towers on the ground and as long as it doesn't Violate the same rules. It shouldn't cause harmful interference and that was our thesis and that's what we've proven So that was the second innovation and we had one more innovation, which is probably the hardest part Ty that I was giving Ty, I always give Ty a hard time about, you know, you can't, you know, there's no way you could do that.

So the third part is no software change of the phone, right? So if you think about it, a phone and a cell tower are talking to each other, this global standard. So we said we need to be backward compatible with this global standard, which means we put the software stack that's supposed to go in the cell tower in our satellite.

And so in 2017, the spring of 2017, Ty was looking at this. And he realized two things break the satellite in the cell tower. Five satellites in a 500 km orbit going really, really fast, right? That's the physics in Earth orbit. You're not geosynchronous. You come down to have a much stronger Lynk margin gain, right?

But the satellite is coming, going very, very fast. So lots of dynamically changing Doppler from the perspective of the phone, right? It's very high here. Your phone can tolerate a little bit of Doppler, like bullet train speeds, 200 kilometers an hour. But orbital speeds are two orders of magnitude. It's like 25, 000 kilometers an hour orbital speeds, right?

And it's, it's, it's if you know your trigonometry, it's a fraction of that, but it's still significant. And it breaks much more than the phone can tolerate. When it's a very positive Doppler, it gets here to zero and then it goes negative very fast, so the phone can't tolerate that.

The second problem is the phone and the cell tower were designed to figure out how far apart they were, and if they're too far apart, break this connection.

In 2G or GSM, it's 35 kilometers, and in LTE or 5G, it's 120 kilometers. And so you have that, the, the, the phone on the ground, if it figures out the satellites in a 500 kilometer orbit, it's going to break the connection.

Steve Hsu: Yep.

Charles Miller: And so we figured out how that works. So the, the, the cool thing that Ty figured out is there's two types of latency.

It uses the latency of the signal between the phone and the satellite and back to decide how far you are.

Steve Hsu: Mm

Charles Miller: But it's one type of latency, it's supposed to break it like distance. But another type of latency it's. designed to tolerate it, which is congestion at the cell tower.

Steve Hsu: hmm. Hmm.

Charles Miller: So what I realized is you could do a trick at the satellite cell tower to make, you can't, you can't divide the laws of physics and just like have the latency from distance go down.

There's going to be latency. A little bit. It's four milliseconds. Not that much. It's much less than human, you know, perception can tolerate. But the phone definitely says there's something going on. It's too slow. But what you can do is a timing offset at the satellite such that when the signal comes back to the phone.

The phone thinks it's, oh, there's congestion, congestion at the satellite, right? So you trick the phone, the phone thinks the satellite, instead of a 500 kilometers and changing, right, is actually right next to it, five or 10 kilometers away, but it's, it has congestion. So it tricks the phone. In the thinking that it's, it's perfectly fine, just a little bit slow and I'm going to tolerate this slow cell tower.

So in that way, we invented the technology that we're backward compatible with all 5. 4 billion people who have mobile phones in their pocket with the existing phones in their pocket.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, it's incredible.

Charles Miller: and some of your users, we probably connected

to their devices.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, it's great, it's a great story of basically hacking the existing protocol so that you know, your setup works.

Now a question, though, that does the, you know, the Doppler shift switches sign, right? Because first you're kind of heading toward the person, then you're heading away.

Does that happen?

Charles Miller: have to dynamically, you know, so when you're, so when, so the way it works is the satellite is in orbit and it's sending down every cell tower, sends down what's called the broadcast channel. The only reason your phone knows cell towers are there is because they're, they're sending out a broadcast saying, I'm here if you want to get on me, my cell tower, let me know.

And it just repeats that. And so your phone can hear all the cell towers around it. And it can decide which cell tower to get on. Well, the satellite cell tower does the same thing. It's sending out a broadcast channel saying, I'm here if you, if you want to let me know. When the phone makes a request to get on, it's in technical jargon, it's called a random access channel request, but it's just the phone asking you to get on.

Hey, I want to get on. The satellite can instantly detect the amount of Doppler shifts, right? And that, it can, because of that, it can estimate how far the phone is away. And because the satellite has been programmed with the curvature of the Earth in there, it can do a dynamic offset going back to the, to the phone, such that the phone doesn't notice much Doppler,

Steve Hsu: Yep.

Charles Miller: right?

And so in that way, you know, it boasts and it also uses that sensing of the Doppler to, to, to trick the, do the, the timing offset for tricking the phone and thinking it's right next to it. Right. All that's done at the satellite. Right, the Doppler compensation, and the satellite has to dynamically compensate for Doppler because the, basically the satellite assumes the phone doesn't move because it really is comparatively stationary, even if it's in a car or a plane, and as it's moving it has to keep adjusting the Doppler compensation for the phone because, because of what you described.

Steve Hsu: So one question is, do you own all the IP for all those clever solutions? Like, can

Charles Miller: Yes. We have patents in 55 countries on those fundamental technologies.

Steve Hsu: Fantastic.

Charles Miller: Now, the idea of doing Doppler compensation and timing is not, is an old idea. But what happened is everybody figured out they could do it from both sides. They were going to make a satellite phone and a saddle and a satellite, and they were going to solve the problem on both sides.

What is unique and non obvious is you could solve it from one side with no

change to the phone.

And so that's our path.

Steve Hsu: Now, between 2017 and today, were there, did you have to assume some increase in compute power that your satellite could have, or was that already available so that you could plan on it being there? Like, did you have to bet on improvements, further

Charles Miller: Well, it was already good enough, but. We wanted better. You know, my engineers always want better, right? So and, and it certainly has gotten better in the last six years. And so you can do, you know, more devices on, on 5G and LTE simultaneously you can process. So it's, I've noticed the engineers are, are less worried about the amount of computers they have today than they were four years ago.

Steve Hsu: Got it. Now, how many of these low Earth orbit satellites do you really need to, let's suppose you get a contract with a carrier in Italy,

Charles Miller: Yeah,

Steve Hsu: you're really concerned at that point about coverage in Italy, but then there are going to be times when some of your satellites are,


Charles Miller: right. Every single satellite is periodic, right? Depending on your latitude, you pass more times a day. for global real time continuous coverage. You know, all the time there, you know, 3 65 24 7. You need almost 1000 satellites in lower earth orbit. But you can do some pretty cool things before you get to continuous coverage, right?

You can do, you know, I. O. T. Right. There's some use. It depends on the use case. There's some I. O. T. Use cases. They want one connection a day. Right? Well, with one satellite, we can do about one connection a day. Right? So do global cellular IoT services.

Steve Hsu: Yes.

Charles Miller: so, but you know, when we think of one next inflection point, we have three operational commercial satellite cell towers in orbit today, where we have the world's only operational commercial satellite cell towers in orbit today.

But we, everybody, wants more. So we're starting commercial services in several countries. We have MNOs who say, let's go some, someone a little bit more. The next major inflection point, it's still periodic messaging. We're going to, you can do messaging everywhere on the planet from your existing phone, or you can do IOT messaging from devices.

So those are pretty cool use cases to start with, with just a small number of satellites. Everybody, of course, wants more. When we get. Our next inflection point is still periodic, but it becomes invisible to the user. We call it seamless messaging. Right now, if you're using our service, you need to know when the satellite passes over, because if you put the message in the outbox, your phone will try for about 15 minutes and it'll stop.

It'll say, ah, I'm not going to stop wasting power.

Right? So, but the moment we get to enough satellites in orbit, so you get at least one satellite every 15 minutes or less, You just put a message in your outbox anytime you like, and you don't even have to think about it, it just goes. And then it downloads your messages.

We call that Global Seamless Messaging. That's about near the Canadian U. S. border, it's, you know, 40 or 50 satellites. But for everywhere on the planet, it's about 130 satellites, you know, that have Global Seamless Messaging. And then, of course, Yeah, everybody wants continuous messaging, and that's getting close to a thousand


Steve Hsu: So what do you, what's your plan look like? What's the, the number of Lynk satellites in orbit as a function of time for the next few

years? What do

Charles Miller: Well, as we raise money, we start ramping up productions so we're, we're almost done building in the next two satellites to la planning to launch this fall, and then five more satellites early 2022 24, and then we're ramping up in mid and late 24s, ramping up to six a month and 12 a month. for our gen one system to get the global seamless messaging, and then we will start our gen two system focused on broadband data everywhere because what, you know, we have a multi billion dollar business just with global seamless, seamless messaging, but that's never good enough.

Every user always wants more speed and better, right? Okay, this is only messaging. When am I going to get broadband everywhere? Well, that's a little bit longer. But that's our Gen 2 system, and we got to build more satellites. And we have a straight line path. We know how to build those satellites now.

The Gen 2 system is just a straight line extension of our Gen 1 system. And broadband data is coming to everybody, no matter where you are on the planet. It's four or five years from now.

Steve Hsu: So that, that Gen 2 system though, ultimately, are you, are you not going at that point head to head with Starlink? Because it's the same customer, right? If I, if I'm kind of out in the woods and I want broadband, I could buy their big bay station or I could get it from you.

Charles Miller: Well, that Starlink is going head-to-head with 10 other companies. It's called Wifi Backhaul. So Hues, ViaSat, OneWeb. The new big emerging competitor there is Amazon Kuiper, right? There's Intelsat, Epic, Inmarsat. There's a bunch of companies that are doing wifi backhaul or cellular backhaul.

And the backhaul, it means you have this device and dish that you have to take around with you, right? That's really expensive. It doesn't fit in your pocket, right? So you put it on your home and you get a WiFi hotspot in your home. You can do that with Starlink, but you know, 10 years ago, you'd do that with somebody else.

And, Hughes, you know, had, you know, so there's a bunch of competitors there. Starlink is... is lowering costs, increasing speeds and making everybody sharper. But it's, it's, it's a different category. It's the moment you, you're going to get 50 or a hundred megabits a second with Starlink, but the moment you walk out of the wifi hotspot, you're going to use link Lynk

Steve Hsu: I'm surprised, though, over time that Starlink, they haven't been able to shrink their base station that you need to install. Like, what, is there some

physics limitation

Charles Miller: they're, they are, they have, I think been shrinking it, but they're giving up speed for, for that there's a, there's a direct trade. They're tied to the KU and KA band spectrum. and so they have larger versions of it that they're selling to cruise ships and they're selling to airplanes.

Right? So they're, they're going into that and, and, and supposedly they're selling one to, you know, the U. S. military that's smaller. So they can carry around, but they're giving up something for that.


Steve Hsu: So, uh,

Charles Miller: still very expensive. Those are very expensive devices that you have to carry all the time the moment the batteries run out, you, sorry. It doesn't work anymore.

Steve Hsu: So in five years, when you're providing bandwidth to every handset in the world. Will you still take my phone calls, Charlie?

Charles Miller: Of course, Steve. So

Steve Hsu: That's great.

Charles Miller: I'll can take, I take, can take 'em from you everywhere, right?

Steve Hsu: So, you'll be out hiking in the Himalayas and you'll take the phone call for me. Great.So, I think you've given the listeners a good. Sense of what Link is up to.

There are a fair number of potential investors, either super high net worth people or people who are partners in venture funds who listened to this podcast.

And I found this out kind of by accident because when we were raising money for Super Focus, which is a. Large Language Model, AI company, a lot of people just heard me talk about it on the podcast and just reached out and said, hey, I hear you guys are raising what, what, what are you guys doing? And so is there a short message you want to send?

Like, I don't know if you guys just completed a round or you're still raising or is anything you want to

Charles Miller: oh, we're, we just completed our A and we actually have signed a term sheet for our B, and they're wrestling very quickly coming together, right? So we have, you know, we look like we have a strategic investor who's going to partner with this, a major satellite company, but there's a lot of deep interest in this. But down the road, raising more capital. We're always looking for new partners. But I think what any investor needs to think about is that this has major disruptive consequences across many industries, right? Many different things. You don't have to invest in space or satellites. The fact that your mobile phone will stay connected everywhere.

That has some profound implications for lots of other industries, right, that 90 percent of the planet where the most important consumer electronic device of our era now is, is, can be taken anywhere and do all kinds of things that has major implications for lots of new categories. Right? And it has profound implications for the mobile towers.

We're going to disrupt other satellite companies. We're going, you know, and it's not just us. There's a bunch of companies jumping in and saying, Me too. Ground based tower companies are going to be disrupted. Right? One of the various interesting insights is that satellite direct to phone is a zero marginal cost business. But ground based cell towers are not.

Steve Hsu: Yeah,

Charles Miller: Ground based cell towers, you pay a ton of power, particularly the farther you go out in the remote area, the more, more your power budget is that you're paying because nobody else, the power company, the electric company says you're the only customer out there. You know, you're, you're going to pay the whole bill, right?

And then the backhaul and the taxes and the maintenance and, and you're, you're on somebody's land. So you're going to pay them rent. Those are all operational costs. Well, you don't pay rent for your satellite in orbit. Rent is free, right? Once you get there, it's a high fixed cost, but zero marginal cost.

We have our own solar power, with zero marginal cost. So our marginal cost per square mile is four orders of magnitude lower than a ground based cell tower. So on the margin as long as we have enough capacity satellites Satellite cell towers are going to take away business from ground based cell towers.

So it's not just in rural remote areas, it's over Japan. Right? In Europe, in North America, right? Where you, South Korea, they'll shut down ground based cell towers for satellite cell towers. So it's quite disruptive, and it's a, it's a very interesting category for, for your investor listeners who think about

Steve Hsu: Yeah, no, I love that. I think that that longer term extrapolation is super interesting. We have to get Masayoshi Son to think about it a little bit or something. But,


Charles Miller: Well, he does think about it. He was an investor in a company called OneWeb. He didn't realize that OneWeb has the same problem Starlink has, right? It's huge subscriber acquisition costs.

Steve Hsu: yeah,

Charles Miller: Lynk does not have any subscriber acquisition costs. So when we sign up Verizon or AT& T, they have a hundred million subscribers.

We don't have to sign those subscribers. They already have the device in their pocket. We don't need to get them a device. So they're, they use their existing device. Now it's connected everywhere. They've already signed up. AT&T, Verizon, they bill the subscriber for our service. So our subscriber acquisition costs are like maybe our, maybe it was huge legal fees to negotiate the deal with Verizon or AT& T, maybe 100, 000 in legal fees.

Well, they have 100 million subscribers. That's a thousandth of a cent per subscriber for acquisition.

Steve Hsu: Yeah.

Charles Miller: And then, you know, they, they, you know, AT& T and Verizon bill the subscriber, right? They, we don't have to bill them. We don't have to market to them. We don't have to take their customer calls. The MNO does that.

So it's zero marginal costs to operate, zero subscriber acquisition costs, and zero subscriber maintenance costs. It's a great business. It looks a lot like a software as a service business, or maybe since it's high capex, more like a data center with zero marginal costs. So it's got great economics once you get into it.

Steve Hsu: When your network is fully built out, what level of connectivity will I have? Like, suppose I'm away from all cell towers. I'm just using Lynk. Will I be able to get 4G, 5G data speeds?

Charles Miller: Oh, absolutely. Now, what, what we, what the, the key issue to, to understand is, is in any cell that's coming down from the satellite, It's, you have to share the capacity in that cell with everybody else that's in that cell. Just like, that's why your speeds slow down in a stadium right? There's a, even if it's a small cell, there's, everybody's packed in, you're sharing the spectrum of that cell.

So if you're, you know, if you're just in a rural area that's outside the suburb, and there's tons of people there, you'll share the capacity there, it'll slow down and if you're in the middle of the Pacific, You get all the capacity, right? So what we think is reasonable to expect is in the future, you'll get megabits a second from your mobile phone.

And that'll do almost everything you really want to do. You can easily, even with 5 seconds, watch a small video on your phone. Right. You can get all your websites, your email, your favorite apps, you know, so we're not going to allow you to stream 40, you know, video to your big screen monitor.

There'll be a few things to say, you know, we're going to limit you to 10 megabits a second. Steve, you don't need to watch your latest TV on your monitor through your phone.

Steve Hsu: Yeah. Well, that's great. That's fantastic. I think we've covered Lynk. Hopefully some big thinking, big visionary investors are going to come to you on the basis of what you just told me.

Charles Miller: They're in the LLMs these days, Steve, I don't know if you, you knew that.

Steve Hsu: Yes yes, we could discuss that too. That's definitely the hottest investment area. And we, you know, we, we were. So we were able to raise our seed round pretty straightforwardly. It wasn't difficult. But I'm, I'm thinking now that you've proven out your technology and it's more just a demonstration or maybe an analysis of the future economics, because no one would doubt that you could get to a thousand satellites in orbit, then like just those calculations of how the economics work and stuff could, if, if, if somebody with the resources were to actually spend the time to like, look into your calculations and say like, Yeah, those guys are gonna get there.

Charles Miller: I think that people who do their work can quickly get there. It's when you solve a problem for five billion people, you know, the numbers get big very quickly.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, that's fantastic.

So, let's maybe mention to you that we would talk a little bit more broadly now than about what's the future of satellite technology. What's the future of maybe global competition in space? Maybe you could just say a little bit about what, what you think, the, or 10 years.

Charles Miller: Well I think there's going to be a repeat of several other sectors going on on an international level. Most of the innovation in satellites is starting in the United States right now and I know it's the, the, the, the, the issue is near and dear to your heart is like how this plays out is, is China, you know, is very clearly coming, right?

And they, they are, they are jumping into rockets. They're, they're the near peer competitor to the United States on, on launch. They've done, started their own version of Starlink, launching them. Earth Remote Sensing Satellites, they're launching lots of smallsats. we're, we are, At least 5 to 10 years ahead of them on launch, and I think we're 5 to 10 years ahead of them on satellite as well.

And that's also playing out in satellite direct to phone as well as, as, as in a, in a slightly different way.

Steve Hsu: Good yeah, I wanted, one of the things I wanted to ask you about was this new Huawei phone has, I guess, right now satellite based calling using, I think, three geosynchronous, if I, if I'm not mistaken, they're actually geosynchronous. So at much higher,

Charles Miller: Yes, and that's actually an example of what I just said, that this is a copycat. They reportedly use the Ting Dong geosynchronous satellites that China's launched three of. I think they launched the first one in 2016. These appear to me and people I've talked to to be a copy of the TerraStar satellites.

The former CEO of TerraStar, Bob Brumley, is a good friend of mine, he's an advisor to Lynk. And they built the satellites in the mid 2000s, and they demonstrated the ability to, to have a geosynchronous satellite connect directly to phones here, here on Earth. Do voice calls and, and it appears China copied it and did the same.

We could do that too. and, and so it sounds like with the Huawei 60 mate they've done that most of the commentaries have been on the seven, the seven nanometer silicon. But you know, they, the cool thing from my perspective is interesting is they actually have two different types of satellites.

They reportedly. One is the Baidu system for doing messaging, and the other is the Qingdong satellites for doing voice calls. They're very, both very cool. They're actually one up on Apple in, in multiple ways. but they still leave a lot on the ground of what you really desire. But they're, they're, they're very cool capabilities. Happy to chat a little bit more about that if that interests you.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, I'm curious because in this case, because it's their handset, they modified the handset, right? There are specific chips in the handset, which serve this purpose.

Charles Miller: So it's not, so it's a modification. It's not a standard phone. They put chips in there to talk to the Baidu system and to the Tingdong system in the frequencies those satellites use. And there's an interesting trade-off in doing that. they clearly were like saying, well, Apple, you can do it. We can do it too.

And so I would say. In this way, they are better than the Apple iPhone 14, 15. But they're not, you know, they're not better, neither Apple, nor the new, the emerging Qualcomm Iridium chip that there's a lot of rumors that'll go into the Samsung phones, nor this phone's, you know, are really competitors with what Lynk is doing.

Steve Hsu: Right. So is that, is that because of the difference between having lots of near earth orbit satellites and, you know, just one big geostationary one.

Charles Miller: Yeah, so the geo, when you put satellites in geosynchronous orbit for the Baidu system, which is a very high inclined orbit You give up a lot in capacity, speed of, or what it can do. Right. and so this goes again, you can put the satellite outside the solar system you want, and you're going to get, you, we get communications back with these humongous telescopes for the JPL deep space network bits per second.

Right. So the Baidu system supposedly, which is in very high altitude, does messaging to the Huawei phone supposedly in the reports are tens of bits a second. Well, yes, you can do a message in tens of bits a second, and an SMS is, you know, about three kilobyte kilobits, right? So tens of bits a second.

Over a few, a couple minutes, you can get an SMS through. and so the same thing goes on with the voice calls. The terror star satellites, which had the largest commercial antenna ever built at the time back in the mid two thousands could do. A maximum capacity of 50, 000 voice calls. It was never designed to satisfy the millions or tens of millions of people who are on, online at the same time. And, but it was for emergency response. It was designed after Katrina. And to, to deal with providing a service for emergency responders when the network goes down because of some, you know, big emergency. And so, same thing for Ting Dong. It's gonna be very limited. I don't know how big Ting Dong is...

Antennas are in space. But it's going to be probably limited to thousands or tens of thousands of simultaneous voice calls. I'm sure that is way below the capacity of demand it will have in China, right? That's a large population, but it will be really useful for if there's some emergency it takes out of the network.

If some, you know, earthquake or fire or something hits, the emergency responders in China will have instant backup and it's going to save lives.

Steve Hsu: I've seen a video online of people with the new Huawei phone making these satellite calls while on commercial flights and things like this. And I'm assuming they're going to price it at some level so that people are not just for fun, clogging up the whole system.

Charles Miller: Gonna let it be cool for people doing it. But once every if it's too cheap, there will be so many people trying to get on right that they'll clog up the network. Now, the other thing I hear from Steve is they did a cool trick with how they built these phones and there's a very limited supply of them.

I don't know what the supply actually is, but I'm hearing That the, the ultra, the version of ultraviolet equipment was the old, old generation of ultraviolet equipment that was designed for 14 nanometer chips, but you can do an extra steps, which very much lowers your production rate, but you can get it down to seven nanometers with the old tech.

But that, that means there's a, you know, you've got a very limited supply. You really, you got, it's a neat hack to get it down to seven nanometers. But that's going to limit your production and drive up the cost per device as well.

Steve Hsu: This particular point, you might want to listen to the episode of Manifold, which is out right now, where I interview someone about this question. And for people who are closely following the cell phone industry there, it looks like they're planning on selling tens of millions of these handsets in the next year.

Charles Miller: Okay. I think that the key thing is how, what's their production bottleneck? How many of these can they produce? That'd be

Steve Hsu: That I think that people who are more expert on the multi patterning with that question and then also like, projections on what Paul has publicly said about projections for their sales and things like that. So they do. There is evidence. One can make a case that they aren't going to be capacity limited that they actually will be able to

Charles Miller: Well, that actually makes it worse for the satellite. There's some, if there's tens of millions of phones, they're going to have to drive the price up.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, I don't. I don't know how that's going to work out. That's that if people are just doing this for fun, eventually, you know, this will be able to handle it. So,

Charles Miller: That yeah, they'll have to drive up the price or they'll have to artificially reduce demand by some other means.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, well, I think that there's a chart. It's unlike, like, the usual thing we're used to now, which is unlimited voice calling on our plan. I think for that feature, you're paying by the minute so that that's 1 way that they throttle.

Charles Miller: Have you heard of any data on what they're charging by the minute for voice calls? That

Steve Hsu: I've seen it. I don't recall the exact number. I want to say it could be like a dollar a minute or something. So it's pretty it's pretty high. Like, no one's going to do it that

Charles Miller: Pretty high.

Steve Hsu: Yeah,

Charles Miller: People will try it for a few times and they'll say, you know, stop that.

Steve Hsu: But if, but if you're, if you're stranded in the Gobi desert dollar, no problem. Right?

Charles Miller: No, this is, you know, you know, and this is a, you know, this is a good problem for Huawei. Right. And whatever the China mobile or whoever is selling the phones, it's like, oh, we're charging a dollar a minute. We have too much demand. Like, oh, woe is me. Right. It's like, it's like, that's, that's a good problem. They have.

Steve Hsu: By the way, I, someone might, I could be wrong on that number. I'm not saying I know it's a dollar a minute, but it just registered in my head as a kind of significant cost. It was kind of back in the old days, Charlie, when you and I tried to call our families from college, it was like a dollar a minute. And so

Charles Miller: Yes. Yes. No one, no one thinks of that. We're used to that. We grew up with that.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, but I could be wrong on the number. That's just kind of what lodged in my head. I saw it out of my peripheral vision on some article or video or something. So,

Charles Miller: No, I'm very interested in how much the uptake on it is. It's very interesting. So goes back to economics when the demand is so large, it's gonna just drive huge economics and you know this addressable market. So there are independent analysts who are looking at this in both the mobile wireless industry and the satellite industry, who have you know, now concluded that solving this problem is going to create the largest new category, or the largest existing category in all of satellite that it's a, it's a hundred billion dollar plus total addressable market for just satellite direct to phone.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, which, which you guys have solved. Right?

Charles Miller: We have solved the world, where the world leader in it, there's a bunch of fast followers coming on. We knew this would happen. That's what happens every time is like, first they tell you that you can't, can't be done. That's crazy. And then they say, well, that's a great idea. I'm going to do it too.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, we say that in physics too, that like, when you submit your paper and the referee looks at it or your colleagues, the first thing they tell you is it's wrong. This is wrong. This is, this, you can't be right about this. And then they, then you kind of explain to them why it's not wrong. And then they say, oh, I see.

Well, okay, maybe it's right, but it, it, this is trivial. This is ridiculous. And you know what? I did it first. Yeah. So, that's the cycle. Now, in entrepreneurship, it's more like they tell you it can't be done. And then once you get it going, a bunch of people are jumping in to try to take the space away from you.

Charles Miller: Fast followers of, you know, there's been a few people who've made you know, a couple bucks being a fast follower.

Steve Hsu: Yep, yep. Good. So I think we covered what we wanted, and what I wanted to cover. if you don't mind, maybe there are a lot of young people who are entrepreneurs who listen to my podcast. And I think if you could give them a little wisdom, because you've been at this for a while, you were working at a pretty hard space.

I would say space is hard. It's not like, it's not like writing an iPhone app. And you know, what's, what's your advice? You've persisted, you know, your, your, you might be having your biggest success ever, right? At this stage in your life.

Charles Miller: Yeah, I've had a few wins under my belt and several. I just think that I would probably reemphasize things I've heard before. First of all, you need to find something you need to find a secret and it's hard to find a secret. You need to do a lot of digging and become an expert in an area. So find something you are deeply passionate about.

I've seen so many people melt away who just don't have the passion. And it's like I'm just this not working for me, right? I love space and I've committed my life to space and I found this because of my love for space that I never give up, right? Find something you're deeply passionate about. You have the energy. You're gonna go the extra mile. Nobody else will, right? It really is true. Knock down nine times. Get up at 10. I'm just absolutely persistent. And my mom would say stubborn, right? But this is what I love. I have. I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else. People for decades told me you should just go to Silicon Valley and do software, right?

I had no passion for it, right? I have a passion for space. And this is why we found this. Find your passion, figure out how you can harness that passion towards your entrepreneurial goal. Right? Because that's what's gonna make you unstoppable.

The person who doesn't have the passion is just gonna be stopped.

Right. You're always gonna get resistance. You're always gonna be knocked down and have people tell you no. You know, investors slam doors in your face. Right. You know, it's like, that's just normal. That's the life of the entrepreneur. It's like you have to have a passion for it. And the, so that's just another way of saying be persistent.

Right. And you know, but you can't, you, you can't just be persistent. You know, you have to be something you love. And the second thing is to learn it all. Right? I, I, you know, the, you, you nev Never stop reading. Never stop learning, you know it's fascinating. Here I have a pile. I have, you see the books behind me.

I have just piles of books. It's tons of books I want to read. And, and if you, if you're both passionate and, and which gives you the persistence. And I learned it all. You will find the breakthrough and you just have faith. You'll find the breakthrough that you know, that has your entrepreneurial dreams come alive.

Steve Hsu: Great. Charlie, that's fantastic advice. And I think that would be a good place for us to end this conversation. And thank you for coming on the show.

Charles Miller: Thanks, Steve. I'm looking forward to seeing you face-to-face here sometime.

Steve Hsu: Yep.

Creators and Guests

Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu
Steve Hsu is Professor of Theoretical Physics and of Computational Mathematics, Science, and Engineering at Michigan State University.
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