SINGAPORE (Feb 18): A few months ago, inside a second-storey shophouse in Chinatown, Rohit Jha and his team fired up a PlayStation 4 set. ­Using its controllers, he virtually navigated a small toy car, manoeuvring through a track on a remote rooftop of one of the buildings in Chinatown. The tiny vehicle was monitored by a couple of cameras and linked wirelessly to the team’s office a few blocks away.

Jha, CEO and co-founder of space tech start-up Transcelestial, says he often demonstrates the capabilities of the company’s product through the PlayStation setup. The effort has paid off. Transcelestial is now manufacturing 100 to 200 units of its wireless communication technology system for customers waiting to test the product. The team is also producing these units in anticipation of new deals that may come from its current discussions with potential partners.

Transcelestial’s technology, which uses lasers (instead of radio signals) to beam data, is not just more efficient in terms of bandwidth required, but also harder to hack. The technology is gaining traction globally with NASA leading the charge. Transcelestial is hoping that its laser network can eventually replace existing wireless networks to deliver high-speed connectivity even in extremely remote regions.

Transcelestial’s units can be placed on buildings or towers to form a high-speed wireless network. While remote applications and wireless connectivity are not new concepts, the company says its system can provide fast connectivity at a fraction of the cost of fibre-optic technology, which is now commonly used. According to Jha, his system can deliver 2GB per second over a distance of 3km, and he plans to increase the bandwidth to 20GB per second over a distance of 10km soon.

Earlier, the company demonstrated its products through joint projects with SK Telecom in South Korea and Telecom Infra Project’s Ecosystem Acceleration Centre initiative, which is backed by Facebook. Transcelestial laser units were used to boost the backbone internet connectivity of a public library near Seoul. The start-up says bandwidth improved by 20 times compared with an existing network.

Today, many of its customers and potential partners are telecommunication companies. “This is because the backbone technology for 5G connectivity is really expensive. One kilometre of underground fibre cable in a major city can cost up to US$200,000 ($271,748),” says Jha. The units can also be used for companies in the logistics as well as the oil and gas space, where remote, high-speed connectivity is vital.

But the start-up, which was formed from the Entrepreneur First Singapore programme, is a lot more ambitious. It is not contented with zipping data to and from buildings and within cities. It wants to use lasers to beam data — up to hundreds of gigabits per second — via nanosatellites for ground, satellite and deep space applications.

To this end, come 2020, the company will launch three nanosatellites to demonstrate the technology. Jha hopes to raise enough money to launch 25 to 30 nanosatellites to test out ultra-high-speed connectivity for a few cities. These are expensive feats, and the company hopes to use the revenue from its ground-based units to fund its space ambition. “We do not think discounts or free pilots are the way to go. We charge based on a subscription model and upfront cost to set the units up,” Jha says.

Replacing undersea cables

Before Jha moved data with lasers, he moved dollars and pounds as a forex trader at RBS Markets and International Banking. During his three-year tenure there, he distributed prices to clients and executed high-volume client orders. “To be able to check the market and send prices quickly to clients, you need to look for the best latency [faster speed] between countries,” he says. That gave him the idea of building high-speed networks. He joined EF Singapore in 2016 and started Transcelestial with Mohammad Danesh, who has a doctorate in nanophotonics.

The demand for data is rising rapidly, Jha says, but undersea cables and fibre-­optic cables are expensive to build and maintain. About 95% of the world’s connectivity is supported by undersea cables today and not many have been deployed since the late 2000s because the cost can go up to billions of dollars.

Currently, internet giants such as Google, Amazon and Facebook are leading the investments in subsea cables. But smaller telecommunication companies are having a harder time investing, as data prices have fallen rapidly in recent years.

Jha thinks laser communication will disrupt the whole industry, as it takes only 10 minutes for someone to set up a couple of laser terminals.

To be sure, laser communication is not a new concept. The way to put data into light and compensate for atmospheric distortions has already been scaled and commercialised. Transcelestial is borrowing from available technologies.

The challenge is to ensure the accuracy of its laser beam from a satellite to a receiver on earth. “How do you point from Japan to hit a specific point in Singapore while moving at 7km a second? We are about 70% there,” he says, referring to the velocity of a satellite in orbit. “Our goal is to reach our full capacity this year. And this will be our key intellectual property.”

Space tech on the rise in Singapore

The company raised $2.5 million last year in a seed round led by Wavemaker Partners and Enterprise Singapore’s Seeds Capital. Airtree Ventures, 500 Startups and Y-Combinator CEO Michael Seibel are among its investors. Jha says the company aims to raise a Series A round in the middle of this year.

“5G is going to be quite expensive for telecommunications companies to launch, owing to the increased cell tower density requirements. Transcelestial’s proprietary technology is capable of scaling up to 20GB per second needed for a 5G backbone, but at a fraction of the cost,” says Paul Santos, a managing partner of Wavemaker.

But the start-up is also racing against time. Globally, space start-ups are taking off, with more companies vying for a piece of real estate in space. Venture capitalists poured US$3.25 billion into space technology companies last year, up 29% from the year before, according to London-based venture fund Seraphim Capital. At least 534 venture firms have invested in space since 2009, with 114 of them in 2018. In Singapore, there are at least two start-ups that will be launching into space by 2020.

This would mean space is getting crowded. And Transcelestial would do well to deploy quickly and build its technology down to a price investors can bear.

This story appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue 869, week of Feb 18) which is on sale now. Subscribe here