Vern Fotheringham is CEO of Kymeta, which was recently spun out of Intellectual Ventures to commercialize a novel satellite antenna that could bring broadband access anywhere on earth, and for considerably cheaper than existing technologies. We caught up with Fotheringham to learn how you get better Wi-Fi on an airplane, what invisibility and connectivity have in common, and why our YouTube videos still frustratingly stall on our smartphones.
FAST COMPANY: You recently closed a $12 million funding round to commercialize a new broadband technology.
VERN FOTHERINGHAM: This is a technology that’s been under development in Intellectual Ventures labs for about the last two years, and finally it’s reached a state of maturity and capability where we’re ready to turn it into a suite of products. Our first product will offer broadband access for business and private users literally anywhere on the planet that has visibility to the satellites in orbit.
The tech relies on something called metamaterials, which garnered headlines in recent years for its weird ability to manipulate light and render things invisible. What does this have to do with broadband?
Everything, interestingly. Our inventor, Dr. Nathan Kundtz, was pioneering in the optical space, and as a good inventor he was thinking, "Light is simply part of the electromagnetic spectrum. What if we take the capabilities to manipulate light, and what would happen if we tried that in the lower frequencies, into the radiofrequency portion of the spectrum." It allows us to create beam-forming, dynamically steerable antennas for wireless communication.
Basically, by forming a beam, this enables you to lock on to a satellite?
Correct, it allows you to lock on and track with a satellite. After the portable satellite hot spot, our next products will bring broadband connections to motor homes, boats, trains, planes, and automobiles that have been wastelands for connectivity. They’ll now have access to significant bandwidth, at 10- and even 20-megabits-per-second rates.
I recently flew Virgin Atlantic, which had Wi-Fi, but I didn’t know how the technology worked.
If you’ve flown on JetBlue or Virgin, there’s a mechanically steered antenna. If you’re at the airport, look out and you’ll see a large bubble on the roof of the airplane. Underneath that is an antenna that has electrical motors steering it and tipping it. We do all that with no moving pieces. On your flight, you may have noticed sometimes that when the aircraft banks, it says "Signal lost due to normal aircraft movement." The mechanically steered antenna could not keep track. But with our technology, we can steer this beam very quickly, in milliseconds versus seconds.
Let’s say I’m using a 4G LTE connection in a moving car. What dates am I getting, and how much of an improvement are you offering?
You’d be getting about 2 megabits per second. With our technology, we’re talking about, in receive-only mode, something on the order of 20 megabits per second, and for uplinks, say between 2 and 10. So it’s as good or better than LTE, at much more favorable prices. That is our objective.
Is there a future in which on every spot on earth, the Internet just flows like water? That we come to expect it everywhere?
I think not only will it come to that, in many places it is already there. We’re getting there very quickly, and how that’s accomplished is going to be addressed in a stratified, multinetwork approach. The public demand is creating an almost incredible march to the future. The pull of the market will lead companies such as ourselves and others to continue to find new ways to bring more bandwidth to more places.
Why, four years after I bought my first iPhone, are YouTube videos still hiccupping on newer versions of the device and newer networks? Ten or fifteen years from now, will this problem be gone?
I think so. The iPhone was the first real assimilation of the computer industry into the telecom and wireless telecom industry. The old legacy telephone players function with management teams that grew up with monopolistic practices as their bread and butter. We have technology to start to address a lot of these problems, but the problems are often regulatory and institutional. The technology is here, but the problems that are creating the public’s frustration often have more to do with how these legacy networks are managed, who owns and controls them, and how they’re operated.