Marketplace Interest in Laser Communications Grows as the Technology Matures

Laser communications satellites are poised to help make ultra-secure communications networks possible, with current capability demonstrations showing optical communications using lasers to send greater amounts of data faster to and from space. Executives from Mynaric, LyteLoop, Xenesis, BridgeComm, and Blue Marble Communications discussed recent developments in what is an increasingly important part of the satellite industry, now closing in on attracting more customers beyond the government sources that made up its early customer base.

Laser is Key to Building Ultra-Secure Communication Networks

Point-to-point transmission via laser offers a high level of security, according to Tina Ghataore, president of Mynaric USA, a laser communication company. “Security just comes inherent in the physics of it,” she said.

Ed Berger, vice president of business development for LyteLoop, said that his company is developing a storage-in-space application to store data on the photons of light on inter-satellite laser links. This is a hyperscale space-based storage system that allows data to travel over ultra-high bandwidth lasers. “By its nature, that is attractive with a certain customer set that is looking for a highly secure communications,” Berger said.

Traditional data networks on the ground are “laughable” right now, he said. “It’s a lot easier to hack a network on the ground than in space. It’s very important for us to have highly secure networks, and the optical networks lend themselves more to that than RF [Radio Frequency communication] does.”

Optical is merely just another layer, said Mark LaPenna, CEO of Xenesis, and it is not about cool technology. “It isn’t about replacing RF,” he said. “It’s about accentuating it and adding a layer to it.”

As laser communication is in the first stages of commercial adoption, it can be misunderstood. Ghataore reminded the group that they are all on a mission. “Our mission collectively is to really get this out there and stop looking at it as a boutique technology because it’s been looked at, and it’s been demo-ed,” she said. “Now our mission is to make it affordable.”

Costs are coming down, and that signals more customer interest to come, LaPenna said. “When we designed our first satellite, the total cost of the satellite was $18 million. The majority of that cost was optical heads and the internal switches. We are now at $10 million and going below. The cost in just three years has come down 60 percent.”

As the technology is developing, investors are lining up but are still skeptical, LaPenna noted. “One question we heard from investors is, How do you compete with Starlink or OneWeb or other mega-constellation operators?” he said. “There’s just 4,500 companies connecting 3.5 billion people today, so there is plenty of meat on the bone for everybody.”

Laser Tech is Poised to Handle an Increasing Volume of Data

Handling the transportation of an increasing volume of data is a key value point for laser communications. One example: There are expected to be 175 zettabytes (one zettabyte is equal to one sextillion bytes) of data created in 2026, Berger said. “We are going from gigabytes to terabytes to zettabytes, and that’s a lot of data. Somebody has to move it and someone has to store it. That is what is driving the market.”

Much of the growth in data can be compared to cellphone development, explained Barry Matsumori, the CEO of BridgeComm, a company developing a global network of optical ground stations. “Cellphones used to have low data rates when they first came out,” he said. “The modulation schemes that existed on those early cellphones were primitive. They had low data rates and supported voice only. But the cellphone that you have in your pocket now is ultra-optimized, and that modem is doing all kinds of modulation schemes. There is so much room for technology growth.”

The development of new technology for ultra-high bandwidth has been a step-by-step process for Neal Nicholson, CEO of Blue Marble Communications.

“We went straight for lower data rates. The [U.S.] Department of Defense had been dealing with 300 megabits per second for a while and were quite happy,” he said. “They hear that they have the opportunity to go to 1 gigabit and they get all excited. Then you talk about 100 gigabit and they are scared — so we actually are backing out.” For now, he said, they are staying with their 1 through 10 gigabyte solutions. “But 100 gigabit is there, and it is ready and waiting for the market to say they now we need it. There are customers who we can’t talk about who want to tap into that,” Nicholson said.

The laser communications industry is maturing, but the marketplace is still uncertain about what is evolving.

“We are actually an industry now,” LaPenna said. “This is not a group of ragtag unfunded hopefuls. We are all mature business people who understand what the market opportunity is and what their needs are. If I was in the marketplace, what would concern me is: Do we play well with each other? Now we are forming business partnerships and forming coalitions and joint venture agreements. That is really what it is all about.” VS

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