Somewhere out in rural America, an unhelpful internet service provider representative is making long drives to neighborhoods he will never connect, completely unaware that he may have inspired the catalyst for a company that solves the digital divide in the United States.
TRAXyL is not technically a satellite or New Space entrant, but CEO Daniel Turner’s pitch was so strong and so persuasive that he won the grand prize at the 4th annual Startup Space entrepreneur pitch contest at SATELLITE 2020. Tuner showcased a fiber deployment solution and business model that derives extreme cost savings by utilizing existing infrastructure — America’s highways. The goal is to bring high-speed connectivity to millions of new municipalities, small businesses, hospitals, school campuses, event complexes, and government and military facilities. Substitute fiber connectivity for books and you come out with the original pitch that Jeff Bezos used to launch Amazon. It’s all about the existing infrastructure.
TRAXyL installs optical fiber lines along existing roadways without digging deep trenches. The company’s patented driverless FiberTRAXtor vehicle “paints” a fiber line on the surface of the road, and then covers and protects the line with the company’s FiberTRAX resin. TRAXyL is targeting the last-mile customer segment, for which installations can be 10 times more expensive than most long-haul or backhaul segments due to the hazards and permitting fees involved, as well as the time-consuming design and installation processes.
Via Satellite interviewed Turner following his Startup Space victory. An extended version of this interview will also be featured on a future episode of the On Orbit podcast.
VIA SATELLITE: Congratulations on winning Startup Space! The judges were very impressed. Can you expand upon the story you told during your pitch about why and how TRAXyL was started?
Turner: TRAXyL wouldn’t have started if my dad never made a phone call to an ISP that will remain nameless. He lives out in a rural neighborhood and he had been unhappy with the quality and speed of his internet service for some time. This ISP representative answered the call and drove all the way out to my dad’s house and we asked him if he could connect my dad’s neighborhood with optical fiber. This rep laughed and rattled off a list of excuses of why he couldn’t help my dad. “You’ll never get service out here,” he says. “It’s too expensive to trench. There aren’t any telephone poles in your neighborhood. There aren’t enough people to justify bringing connectivity here. And, the county you’re in won’t let us trench.”
As he drove away, I thought about how interesting it was that this rep could drive a car all the way out to my dad’s house because of the existing infrastructure, but couldn’t run a line to connect his neighborhood. If we have this infrastructure in place for driving, why can’t we piggyback off of that same infrastructure to provide connectivity to rural areas?
VIA SATELLITE: How did you initially set out to solve this problem using the existing infrastructure?
Turner: My co-founder [Stephen Carter] and I literally started on our hands and feet. We first thought to paint a fiber line on the road ourselves. We were laying the fiber and placing the coating by hand. We went through several pairs of gloves and kneepads trying to connect our initial pilot sites. We had developed the coating, the FiberTRAX, and then realized that we needed another invention to be able to deploy the fiber line in a more automated way. I spent a whole winter season in my dad’s garage, building this machine from scratch, going through several iterations and prototypes before arriving at the FiberTRAXtor.
VIA SATELLITE: How does the FiberTRAXtor vehicle work?
Turner: Essentially, what we’ve invented is this automated machine that “paints” an optical fiber connection between two points. It uses highly durable resins to bond a low-profile fiber cable down directly on pavement. The only prep we’re doing is making sure there’s no loose debris in front of the line. If you have good-looking, solid pavement, then we can essentially paint a line down that pavement with optical fiber. We see it as a low-cost, quick-to-deploy method of installing fiber optic cable and bringing high-speed connectivity to places where it wasn’t possible to do so before.
I went through many components during its development. I spent a lot of time learning how to program the vehicle’s microcontroller, the resin and fiber output system. We had to learn how to shape and cure the resin in the right way, and how to unspool the cable. It was quite the effort. I think being armed with that knowledge and understanding is going to go a long way in building the next commercial prototype that we currently have going on right now.
VIA SATELLITE: So, the FiberTRAXtor and FiberTRAX are your own, original, in-house inventions?
Turner: We have two patents issued. One patent covers the machine that lays out the fiber and FiberTRAX, and the other covers the method of which we lay the fiber using the FiberTRAX resin. The materials for the resin itself are sourced from a combination of other suppliers.
VIA SATELLITE: At Startup Space, you told the judges that TRAXyL could be a game-changer in bridging the digital divide and deploying 5G infrastructure. As the ISP rep told your father, deploying fiber is too expensive to justify for areas with low population density. How are you going to bring fiber costs down low enough to justify widespread deployment?
Turner: Currently, there are only a few ways you can install fiber: underwater, underground, or strung up on utility poles. The cables themselves are pretty fragile. The fiber optic line is made of glass. You have to protect that fiber, so you have to wrap it in armor and steel and then bury it, or string it up on utility poles in order to protect it as best as you can.
Over the course of the past few years, deployers have found that you don’t have to bury the fiber as deep as previously thought. They’ve developed what’s called “micro-trenching techniques.” But, they’re still placing the fiber under the ground. The cost of digging into the ground and placing fiber, and dealing with the utilities involved is still prohibitively expensive in a lot of cases.
We took a look at this and the questions we asked were: Why don’t we just place the fiber directly on the road in a protective manner that avoids all the other utilities? And, what’s the fastest and most efficient way to deploy this fiber on the road and make it durable enough to provide economic value? We think we’ve come up with answers to these questions in a solution that works really well.
VIA SATELLITE: 5G networks require some sort of fiber component. Is TRAXyL purely a rural deployment solution, or is FiberTRAX durable enough for dense, urban areas that are looking at 5G?
Turner: TRAXyL started out as purely a rural broadband connectivity company. But, since then, we’ve learned that there is just as much demand for fiber infrastructure in dense, urban areas, where it’s much, much more expensive to deploy due to all the utilities and regulations you have to deal with. We’ve developed solutions and services to meet the needs of potential customers in both environments. FiberTRAX is durable enough to still provide cost-savings to deployers in urban areas, even with the cost of regular maintenance.
VIA SATELLITE: When you first set out with the FiberTRAXtor and the FiberTRAX resin, how did your initial customers react?
Turner: It was a steep learning curve in trying to find our customer niche and establishing a foothold in the market. We started talking to rural municipal and county governments and hundreds of different types of businesses, ISPs, fiber installers. Ultimately, we found our first major customer with the U.S. military. We won a contract with the U.S. Army to build a machine for them, which is what we’re currently working on now. We think there are a lot of potential use cases to bring connectivity onto bases — to run gate control, set up security cameras, or connect different buildings on a base. The Army was interested in what we were doing and we were able to get a grant through the Rapid Innovation Fund to finance the development of our next machine.
VIA SATELLITE: What about investors? Did they react as strongly as the Startup Space judges?
Turner: We’re actually taking a different route when it comes to financing. We bootstrapped our R&D with our own money. Afterward, we received a $225,000 R&D grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) SBIR Phase 1 and we applied for the second phase of funding in February. So, we’re set on R&D costs.
We’ve talked to hundreds of investors and we did go through several incubator and accelerator programs such as the Halcyon Incubator in D.C., the Social Impact Incubator, DreamIt, and the MassChallenge Texas Accelerator where we ended up winning first place and a $150,000 prize. There were different stages of our growth when we wanted to raise some money to get moving, but we found that, because we have enough in grant support and we’re signing contracts and making progress, we’re able to fund the project ourselves at the moment. We can lock down most of the risk by doing the front-end development ourselves, backed by our military funding. That said, we have been able to network with a lot of private investors throughout this process, so we do have options to raise capital if we need to. Some of the investors are actively providing guidance, as well.
VIA SATELLITE: You’re not technically a satellite company, but you won a pitch competition at a satellite event. Are you competing with the last mile constellations like Starlink and the rural/remote-focused Geospatial (GEO) operators, or is your technology complementary to what they’re doing?
Turner: TRAXyL is absolutely complementary to what the satellite industry is doing. In a 5G world, where all of the networks are hybrid, TRAXyL can actually benefit the satellite industry. As you said, 5G can’t work without a fiber component. We can provide the fiber element as a partner at low cost. We also had some very productive conversations at SATELLITE 2020 with operators and launch providers who want to bring fiber to their remote facilities.
Considering what the future of connectivity looks like, I think we have to get past the mindset of fiber versus satellite and vice-versa. The future is one big hybrid network. Satellite, cellular, and fiber all work together to build the same wireless network. This is what 5G should look like, unless you want small cells and terminals on every building and telephone pole, and you want to pay all of those utilities and building owners for the access to the infrastructure.
VIA SATELLITE: Considering that the FiberTRAXtor is quick-deploy and automated, do you feel that what you’re doing could be useful in the scenario we’re currently facing with COVID-19?
Turner: Absolutely. We feel that we can make a significant social impact with what we’re doing. It’s not just rural connectivity, but also telehealth and education. COVID-19 isn’t going to just impact the cities. It’s going to be in rural communities, as well. As long as there are roads, we can quickly and cheaply deploy the fiber needed to enable telehealth services and connect remote health facilities. We’re not just about bringing faster internet to my dad, but connectivity to people who need it most. VS