Cover Story: Lasering connectivity’s last-mile challenges

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 28, 2022 - March 06, 2022.
Cover Story: Lasering connectivity’s last-mile challenges
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Malaysia’s connectivity woes are no secret. Recently, 19-year-old Frank Steward Panting Sa from Pakan, Sarawak, made the headlines by trekking two hours up Bukit Kelingkang for better internet speeds to attend university admission interviews that were being held virtually. 

Suboptimal connectivity, however, isn’t just a problem plaguing rural localities. The network coverage in densely populated cities too, despite the extensive infrastructure, has been rather exasperating to users.

Round-the-clock accessibility and problem-free connection are among the main objectives of Malaysia’s Jalinan Digital Negara (Jendela), which is aimed at fiberising the whole country to provide better internet connectivity and, subsequently, the 5G cellular network. 

The government, via the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, included as part of the plan the sunset of 3G, which would free up band­width and increase connectivity speeds for everyone. And yet, many urbanites face difficulties connecting to the internet despite our mobile phones showing full signal strength.

This issue is not unique to Malaysia because the reality is that even in 5G pioneers such as South Korea, the real gains from being connected to the internet comes from having a base layer of bandwidth and latency, which needs to be above a certain threshold for a rich online experience, says Rohit Jha, co-founder and CEO of Singapore-based Transcelestial.

This prompted him and his team to look into what is really wrong with internet distribution in the world right now.

The 500 Startups-backed high-speed internet connectivity firm — which has raised US$14 million from some of the biggest venture capital funds including Wavemaker Partners and Kickstart Ventures since its founding in 2016 — promises to make up for the connectivity gaps with fibre cables that use wireless laser technology to beam data at 10Gbps.

On Jan 27, Digital Edge broke the story of Transcelestial’s partnership with Glocomp Systems (M) Sdn Bhd — a Petaling Jaya-based digital solutions firm in which Singaporean telco M1 is acquiring a 70% stake — to spearhead a wireless laser communications boost in Malaysia. Through the partnership, they hope to solve pain points faced by mobile operators and enterprises as they explore solutions to the last mile connectivity hurdle faced by the 5G network.

The potential of this technology is such that it can reduce the cost to fiberise urban areas and speed up the rollout of fiberisation and, subsequently, access to 5G, even in rural areas. Previously, using wireless laser technology to transmit data was mostly undertaken by defence contractors and cost billions of dollars to implement.

Since the founding of Transcelestial, it has been working on producing this technology at a more affordable price for enterprises and governments. According to the company, the technology costs less than US$10,000 to install.

As it stands, the rollout of the 5G network will cost the country RM12.5 billion, said Deputy Finance Minister II Yamani Hafez Musa in December last year, but there is no guarantee that Malaysians will be able to enjoy the super speed of 10Gbps as promised. 

Fiberisation isn’t enough

Jha and his team have been doing extensive research on the connectivity issues that have crippled the world for years. It boils down to three areas, the first of which is that 99% of the world’s data does not come through satellites but undersea cables, which lie at the bottom of oceans.

“Each cable takes more than a billion dollars to deploy over the years, and the cables are constantly breaking. Fixing [the cables] costs tens of millions of dollars sometimes. This, in itself, is a challenge,” says Jha.

The second challenge is intercity distribution. He explains that each of these undersea cables come up to land in the coastal areas of countries. For example, if a cable lands in Johor Baru, the local telcos will need to pay for and deploy another cable to bring that data from the landing point all the way to the other cities in the country to offer the internet.

“Imagine how the market economy starts to play a heavy role in these cities. Tier one cities can give telcos a faster return on investment so they get the best kind of infrastructure and fibre-optic cables laid,” says Jha.

“But the tier two cities don’t get the same kind of love because they don’t project that much demand. That is why when you go to smaller cities and towns, the connectivity is subpar.”

The final complication arises in the last mile distribution, which usually happens within a city or collective of buildings and campuses. Data centre providers such as Amazon and NTT utilise undersea cables to move data, and the task of transmitting the data to cell towers, homes, offices and buildings usually falls on telcos and internet service providers (ISPs).

With that in mind, the relevant stakeholders will have to convince people of the need to lay fibre-optic cables and thus, take up space on their properties and land just to get connectivity in a building. This is usually the most expensive and time-consuming part of the process, also known as “right-of-way”, says Jha.

The quandary in internet distribution was the basis for the founding of Transcelestial in 2015. The idea came to Jha when the space economy started to gain traction. With the Earth’s natural resources expected to run out in less than two decades, companies such as SpaceX have been exploring ways to reduce the cost of space transport in the event that this planet becomes inhabitable.

SpaceX had great success with its Falcon 9 flight 20, the first time the first stage of an orbital rocket made a successful return and vertical landing. Its feat prompted conversations around interplanetary communication, considering the likelihood that the human race would most probably be a multiplanetary species in about 50 years or so.

But Jha needed to make the right connection to further his ideas. The Indian engineer — who graduated from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore with a Bachelor of Engineering in Electrical and Electronic Engineering — joined US-headquartered deep tech accelerator and talent investor Entrepreneur First in 2016. The platform helps tech experts connect with the like-minded, so they can further their ambitions and build a technology company from scratch together.

There, Jha met his co-founder and chief technology officer, Dr Mohammad Danesh, who holds a PhD in nanophotonics — the field of study that investigates the behaviour of light on nanometer scales — from the National University of Singapore and has more than a decade of experience with electromagnetics and optics.

“If we want to go to the Moon and Mars on a regular basis for mining and exploration, there needs to be a form of communication between these planets. We need a communication system or a mechanism to be able to support a civilisation’s growth in that trajectory [of those planets]. So, we need something that [we could] scale beyond Earth’s borders, in bandwidth, latency and reach,” Jha explains.

“If you look at the night sky, you see light coming from the stars, which are millions of light years away. And so, light becomes the best medium to transmit massive amounts of data at very long distances, which is our long-term goal. But what really took us down the rabbit hole was the thought of merging these concepts with the state of communication on Earth right now.”

Solving the last-mile connectivity challenge

For the last five years, Jha and his team at Transcelestial have been working to develop and deploy its patented Centauri free-space optics devices. The Centauri device uses wireless laser communication technology for point-to-point fibre optics.

What does this all mean? Jha simply puts it as “fibre-optic cables without the cables. Wireless fibre optics [lasers]”.

It is difficult to imagine without knowing what a typical fibre-optic cable looks like and how it functions, but it is basically using a laser — just like the red, blue or green laser pointers used during presentations — to carry data.

“Fibre-optic cables are really a shell to channel laser signals, which in turn carry data. The real data inside of fibre optics is actually a light or laser. The laser is nothing more than a laser pointer you use in university or at the office. It’s the same technology, but the fibre optics are shifted to invisible infrared lasers,” Jha explains.

“This was something AT&T [via Bell Labs] tried to do in the 1960s and that was how it came up with the fibre-optic cables we have today. But we wondered whether we could bring it back to its original vision and take the laser out, the size of which is a pinhead and can shoot data across kilometres, effectively.”

The Centauri devices, which are the size of a shoebox, require zero spectrum costs or right-of-way, enabling enterprises and telcos to connect the last mile quickly, flexibly and cost-effectively.

Jha says the cost to deploy wireless laser communication is a quarter of the cost to deploy fibre-optic cables. “Keep in mind the whole journey to lay fibre-optic cables, from getting the permission of property owners and approvals to lay the cable to getting the right-of-way for optimal connectivity, as well as all the physical effort to dig the ground, install the cable and cover it up. In the end, all the cell towers need to be connected to the fibre cords. The whole process can take weeks and up to 24 months.

“It is estimated that more than 20% of the cost to roll out a network — whether it is 4G or 5G, home or office broadband — comes down to the cost of installing these fibre cables. And guess who bears the cost at the end of the day? The consumers,” he points out.

With Centauri, all that is needed is two devices, one to send the signal and one to receive the signal at two points — the first has to be at the end or along a fibre-optic cable — for connectivity to be available.

“For example, one device is placed at a cell tower and the other device can be put at a building that needs fibre-optic connectivity. Both devices will scan and find each other and shoot a laser that will act as a wireless fibre,” Jha explains.

“So, from spending months to years negotiating to pull fibre-optic cables, it can be done within a day. Costs that would usually be priced into what customers pay, such as digging the ground and getting land access rights, are no longer part of the picture.

“This leaves one of the main considerations to be the utilisation of the cell tower, and thus the cost is effectively reduced by 25% and the rollout of 4G and 5G connectivity to homes and offices immensely speeds up.”

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) has been working on laser communication technology and it tested a laser link between the Moon and the Earth in 2013.

Defence contractors have used lasers to transmit data between aerospace vehicles at high speeds. But this equipment can cost billions of dollars. Jha points out, however, that Transcelestial’s technology would cost its customers less than US$10,000 to install. “Most of the effort is really in manufacturing the device so that each device is produced repeatedly with consistent quality,” he says.

Since Covid-19 hit, demand for this technology has increased and the company has started expanding into other markets across Asia, says Jha. It has a presence in almost 10 countries and has been carrying out pilot programmes and collaborating with business partners in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Macau and Hong Kong.

“Representatives from these countries were impressed with the technology we offered and ended up investing in us. Cap Vista — the strategic investment arm of the Defence Science and Technology Agency of Singapore — is a big investor and we are looking at a few other places like Australia, India, Japan and South Korea,” says Jha.

“In fact, we were working with SK Telecom [in South Korea] three years ago when it was planning to launch its 5G network. We have really seen the company in action.”

 

Entering the Malaysian market

Urban connectivity in Malaysia has always been a challenge, especially with telcos, as the last set of equipment they put in place is for last-mile connectivity — a hurdle which Glocomp Systems (M) Sdn Bhd wants to overcome by using Singapore-headquartered start-up Transcelestial’s ultra-high-bandwidth wireless laser communication devices.

“That last-mile connectivity is the one that telcos and broadband providers need to provide to houses and offices. And unfortunately, anything to do with last-mile connectivity requires a massive rollout plan. It is not something that can be easily shared among telcos and internet service providers (ISPs),” says Joseph Giam, managing director of Glocomp.

5G connectivity went live in Putrajaya, Cyberjaya and parts of Kuala Lumpur in December, marking the first step towards having 40% 5G coverage by end-2022, 70% by end-2023 and above 80% by end-2024.

Telekom Malaysia Bhd, on behalf of unifi Mobile, and YTL Communications Sdn Bhd, on behalf of Yes, were the first two operators to provide 5G access to users. Other telcos have yet to come on board, and Bangi member of parliament Ong Kian Ming has been hot on their tracks to identify the root issues behind Digital Nasional Bhd’s (DNB) rollout of a single wholesale network.

“It’s not just a local problem. Many countries around the world are still trying to discover the best way to do this. It is one of the toughest challenges, especially in getting approvals from the authorities,” says Giam.

“Even in a city like New York, it will take a very, very long time to get approval. Not because the technology or money is unavailable, but because there are many aspects to look into, as the cities were built decades before and it is tough to work around the existing infrastructure.”

He believes that Transcelestial’s technology is a breakthrough for the industry as it is a functioning and accessible solution and can even be useful in strengthening rural connectivity. The technology’s unique selling point is its agility — it can be deployed almost immediately and without the need to wait for long-drawn-out government and planning approvals.

“Right now, we are working towards figuring out how we can make this solution more affordable, more inclusive as well as to get different enterprises, telcos and ISPs to test out the technology,” says Giam.

“We are also looking into how we can package this into a managed service and provide connectivity as a service, just like how it is when deploying a broadband solution for homes and offices. In this case, businesses will not need to buy the equipment but only rent it and pay a fee to get 10Gbps of speed connectivity per month.”

Transcelestial’s technology allows for speeds of up to 10Gbps, which is the minimum requirement for 5G deployment. Jha says that during the early days of 5G deployment, pioneers such as SK Telecom were testing the standards for what would be considered a good last-mile backbone speed for 5G. After 2½ years of testing with such companies, Transcelestial determined that 10Gbps would be the benchmark.

These companies are now looking at the next upgrade to 25Gbps as the previous speed limits are beginning to get crowded with users and data. However, for developing countries in Southeast Asia, 10Gbps may be sufficient for the next couple of years.

“Right now, some places in Malaysia don’t even have good fibre connectivity, so having Transcelestial’s 10Gbps speeds is a good place to start. The technology is future-proof for at least the next two years or so,” says Giam.

Jha concurs, adding that the company is currently working on developing devices that can accommodate up to 100Gbps, which may be made available in the next few years or so.

Giam says that for now, the company will focus on rolling out the technology to enterprises, government bodies and campuses. For campus connectivity or to connect several buildings within a vicinity, it can be installed independently without the involvement of telcos and ISPs, he points out.