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One-on-one with Isotropic Systems founder and CEO John Finney

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Isotropic Systems is among the cluster of electronically steerable antenna-makers garnering attention from aviation stakeholders, as the build-out of new low-latency LEO and MEO satellite constellations — via which aero ESA transmissions are expected to shine — continues apace.

As is so often the case in this sector, Isotropic’s timeline for delivering a certified Ka-band aero product has moved to the right — until the middle of 2024. That’s two years later than the previously-anticipated 2022 debut.

But according to company founder and CEO John Finney, 2024 is the perfect time to bring Isotropic’s unique multi-link aero antenna to market as multiple new Ka satellite systems will be in orbit, and industry can expect another wave of aircraft retrofits.

After Isotropic’s recent announcement that it has secured more funding to facilitate the development of its antenna, Runway Girl Network interviewed Finney to understand the state of play.

RGN: Isotropic Systems announced in February that it had secured over $40 million in funding to accelerate growth. For clarity, is this latest announcement – that the firm has raised over $37 million – in addition to the $40 million already secured? So Isotropic has secured $77 million since February?

Finney: It is in addition to that. So, in total, that brings our total funding to just over $100 million. That is the total amount of funding the company has received so far from various sources – equity funding, grant funding and customer contracts in terms of development contracts. From that $100 million, $37 million is the round we just closed.

RGN: Will Isotropic require additional funding in order to bring its multi-link antennas through to product launch, or will the already-secured funding suffice?

Finney: No. We’re fully funded well past the product launch dates through the middle of next year.

RGN: When will the aero antenna, specifically, be ready for primetime?

Finney: Because we have a core building block which will be present in all our antennas, including aero, we have essentially already started development of the aero product. That core module, which is required to meet strict aero standards, will be present in the aero terminal.

Isotropic chief marketing officer Brian Billman: So, the expected launch of the aero product would be in the middle of 2024, which is when it is fully certified and ready to go. We’re using the same technology that we’re using for land mobility and the maritime terminal.

Finney: Mid-2024 is the perfect time for the market that we’re going to intercept which is when, in our view, we’re going to see multiple Ka-band satellite systems in orbit – LEO, MEO and GEO – and that’s when we think the global footprint of NGSO really opens up. And since we have a unique capability to access multiple links, we will redefine the aero space.

We decided to go with land and sea-based mobility products initially knowing that the market, in our view, really starts to get exciting for aero in 2024. You see the arrival of Telesat Lightspeed, Inmarsat GX7, 8 and 9, SES mPOWER, ViaSat-3 and SES-17. Now you will have these really rich Ka-band satellite systems, and the perfect use for Ka-band is in fact aero because it performs better than Ku in clear sky conditions, has lots of speed and low-latency, and you can enjoy your devices that much more in terms of passenger experience.


RGN: Does Isotropic envisage supporting SES’s networks (including mPOWER) in aero with its hardware?

Finney: So, we’re not at the stage yet where we’re going to talk about our commercial strategy for aero. We’re very busy in that regard. We are open to everyone. SES is definitely an important lead customer, but we’re unrestricted in who we sell our platform to, because ultimately what we’re doing with true multi-beam is opening up space. We are doing what the satellite industry forgot to do – the ability to mesh satellite networks together.

Right now, the IFC environment is like buying an expensive handset, taking a contract with Verizon, and not being able to roam out of the coverage area. And when out of the coverage area, you’re not able to roam onto T-Mobile. Presently, there is no network sharing, no transitioning traffic across different networks. Every single satellite system is an island of its own and it’s a win or lose scenario.

We’re changing that. Now customers will be able to pick the attributes they desire in multiple satellites and bring them back to one place. We’re creating that capability, which frankly should have been in aero ten years ago but isn’t because of the lack of standardization. At present, every network is an island. So, we’re not going to be restricted to where we sell because the nature of what we’re doing is bringing multiple capacity sources from multiple operators down to one place, and completely enriching the customer experience.

RGN: Will satellite operators cooperate? After all, many of them like to have fixed idea of a providers capacity requirements.

Finney: I think the satellite service providers ultimately are going to be in the driver’s seat as to how capacity is bought and sold and how it’s delivered to end customers, with the exception of the vertically integrated operators – companies like Viasat for example. But in the main, when you look at satellite service providers… I’d point to Anuvu. That’s very, very telling in that their new strategy is building a constellation [of microGEO satellites] of their own. They’ve selected Astranis, and are meshing with a LEO constellation provider. I think it’s going to be Telesat. So, they’re already thinking about harnessing the best attributes of space systems, and obviously Anuvu has a strong inflight business.

Think about the dynamics of the service providers and their levels of profitability. They had to lock themselves into long-term contracts. Their onboarding costs are too high. Look at a situation like Gogo, for example. They haven’t had a profitable quarter since their IPO, the last time I checked. So, who is making money out of aero with single beam solutions?

It takes a couple of years for an aero ISP to break even on an aircraft, even on premium transatlantic routes, so there was an air grab – with a long-term play – in mind in order to become profitable. But things happen; that’s what COVID-19 taught us. It has decimated travel for quite some time.

So, now the name of the game for anyone serious about aero is two things – change the passenger experience dramatically and get to profitability quickly. If you don’t differentiate, you won’t be around for too much longer because obviously this market is changing very, very quickly at this point.

We’re radically different. And this is the best news for service providers – to have that purchasing power, to light up links to different satellites and not be locked into a single provider.

RGN: Are you focusing on a Ka product for aero?

Finney: Our technology as a point of note is already proven in Ku and Ka, but in terms of productization, we went Ka first and the reason we did that is we talk to the operators and read the filings and what we see is multi-orbit Ka systems – Telesat (GEO and future Lightspeed LEO), SES (GEO and future mPOWER MEO), Inmarsat (GEO and ultimately LEO as part of Orchestra), Viasat (which is going GEO and either MEO or LEO), .

Now let’s look at the new wave of competition coming in with vast financial support like the Starlinks of the world. If the aforementioned providers can bring orbital assets together, they can compete against these vast new systems coming on board. Why would you have a multi-orbit system but then operate each one independently? So, I see the way this market is coming about is as a completely new wave of serious differentiation that relies on harmonizing these orbits for these operators. At Isotropic, we solve the problem as we allow them to harmonize to have a strong path going forward and a path to growth, and then they don’t have to worry too much about large single layer systems such as Starlink and those types. This is about differentiation to survive in a very fast-moving satellite ecosystem.

Regarding whether to bring a Ku product to market, we don’t need to make that decision now. We just need to be certain we have the chipset to take us there, which we absolutely have. Some are taking a long look at frequency ranges that are higher than Ka. We can go up or down in frequency range and penetrate those markets if we think they’re strong enough but right now we think the future is Ka for aero.

RGN: What part of the civil aviation market will Isotropic’s hardware make its debut – business aviation, regional jets, large commercial air transport?

Finney: We are definitely focused on commercial aviation initially and we think there is a digital divide in aero. We think the current onboarding costs are far, far too high for effectively single link solutions.

I draw the analogy of the way that Royal Caribbean upgraded its satellite capacity in the cruise industry. They moved to SES O3b satellite capacity because they had a clear view of the expectations of passengers who don’t care how satellite works. That is, when passengers leave their homes and get on that vessel and move around, they should feel they can fundamentally do exactly the same things as they do at home, whether that be gaming, streaming, and indeed multiple streams at once. They have high expectations. So that is what the future of aero looks like and right now the cost of onboarding and the limitation of what you can do with those current antennas is basically pulling down the passenger experience. It’s leading to high costs for bandwidth. On a longhaul flight from London to Los Angeles, you’ll pay almost as much for an IFC session as you pay your ISP for a month at home. With Isotropic and under this new multi-link paradigm, onboarding take rates will be higher.

RGN: Has Isotropic engaged in any flight testing as yet? When might this transpire?

Finney: We don’t comment on what conversations we’re having or what our commercial strategy is. We’re a private company. But there will be announcements in this space within the next 12 months. What we’re doing is fundamentally different to everything else that’s out there. It’s gaining a lot of traction. I think 2024 is when we’ll see the next age of retrofits. And at that time, we’ll be ready with antenna product to harness enormous amounts of traffic to a single aircraft.

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Featured image credited to Isotropic Systems