Niki: I’m Niki Christoff and welcome to Tech’ed Up. Today in the studio, I’m talking with Charles Miller, co-founder and CEO of a commercial satellite company called Lynk.
Our conversation covers the following topics: billionaires going to space, why 5G marketing campaigns are not going to help people with zero-G of cell phone coverage, and, also, what’s up with space junk.
A note to our listeners, in this episode, you will be spared my humble-bragging middle school space camp stories but not my personal feelings about stars. Thanks for listening.
Niki: Good morning! Today in the studio, we have Charles Miller, co-founder and CEO of Lynk, which is a commercial satellite company. Thank you for coming into the city and into the podcast studio today.
Charles: Thanks for having me, Niki. Great to be here.
Niki: So we could talk space all day. Before we started recording, we were talking about space camp and space movies. We've talked before about space policy, but since we have limited time, the two things I'd love you to cover off are what your company, Lynk, is doing and this problem you're trying to solve. And then there's an additional problem that you have to deal with, which is space junk, and what we should be doing about it. It's been in the headlines recently.
Charles: Well, there is a little bit of that [Niki: Yes!] and it's great to be talking on a space geek’s podcast-
Niki: [interrupts] This is, well, these are sort of light space geeks. There's some real space geek’s podcasts [Charles: I’m talking about you, Niki!] [laughs] Oh, yes! I am a space geek. [both laugh] It's true! It's true. I love it. And I'm for this commercial exploration. In fact, this is one of the things we can talk about is how these billionaires going to space are actually helping companies like yours. Maybe we start with that.
Charles: Well, they've been a lot in the headlines recently, right? And so, it's a huge phase change in the commercial space industry and they've taken a lot of flack. But really, what most people don't understand is that space is a very powerful way to, y’know, to help people on earth. There's lots of things you can do in space that will save lives and change lives on earth.
And that's what Lynk is actually doing. We're taking advantage of, y’know, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and Branson, and many others, are inventing much lower-cost rockets that are going to open the space frontier, and we're going to bring space to benefit billions of people on earth.
Niki: So we’ll talk about what that is, but to recap, we're here, you and I are aligned on this, the billionaires using their money to drive down the costs, increase the quality and safety of rocket launches, is going to help companies like yours. And your company is going to help people. What are you guys doing?
Charles: So, we have figured out what some used to call the holy grail of satellites. How to connect a satellite directly to the mobile phone in your pocket. Now, this is personal. Across the world, over 5 billion people have mobile phones. It is by far the most prolific universal technology device in the lives of billions around the planet. And what we have figured out is we can connect to a phone on the ground. We've already proven it. We've launched five cell towers in space. And what this means in the not too distant future, you're going to stay connected everywhere on the planet. No matter what, even when a hurricane or fires or tornadoes take out the cell tower networks, you'll have instant backup via satellites who will connect, connect you on, on your phone.
Niki: So, there's different use cases I've heard you talk about which I had never considered. So I, obviously, am frustrated when my phone doesn't work and I live in downtown Washington, D.C., and I think the trees are blocking my 5G, but you don't have to explain that to me today, I’ll make someone else explain it [chuckles]. But having this connectivity that then picks up those dark spots I've thought of, but what I hadn't thought about, is commercial fishermen who might be up in Sitka, Alaska, [Charles: mm-hmm] or you're in rural Oklahoma, rural parts of the United States where they just don't have coverage at all.
Charles: They call it flyover country, right? Well, our satellites fly over the country, and we're going to provide connectivity to people everywhere in the middle of the United States that don't have a cell tower and- there are 60 million Americans who live in rural remote communities, 20% of America. And most of the policymakers, y’know, and technologists don't think about those people, right?
They think about their lives, which are mostly in the city. And we have a blind spot about the people who've been left behind. Right? I grew up in a rural remote community and, and I go back there and they have a tough life. I think providing universal connectivity everywhere on the farm, everywhere in remote areas is, a, going to be, a huge major boon on their lives.
Niki: I also grew up in a rural area and it's not just a- and my phone doesn't work that great when I go back there. But there are places even more far-flung than where I grew up in how they are now and I think there's this idea that they're just going to one day- ‘they” being, y’know, these telcos, are going to one day just build cell towers there, but they're not [Charles:They’re not] because it doesn't make any financial sense.
Charles: Because they’re money losers. And, and so the incentive for the telcos is ‘cause they get beat up about it, y’know, by, by the U.S. government, by Congress, by the FCC, is to say they have everything covered, but they don't. And we all know they don't. And so we have a map system that kind of covers up, that, the huge amount of black spots in the country. And most of the time, the industry is spent marketing 5G. Well, this is the dirty little secret about 5G. It's just faster coverage where you already have coverage. Right? It's not filling in the black spots. It is not filling in when the network goes down, its instant backup. 5G is not a solution to zero-G.
And so, Lynk is solving the zero-G problem. And so, many, y’know, some of your listeners work on Capitol Hill, many Senators and members of Congress work in these remote and rural districts. They have to try to track their senators and their members across the state, knowing where they're out of connection. We just know that there's huge areas of America that are disconnected, and Lynk is solving that problem.
Niki: It's so important! 5g is not going to fix zero-G. So, you guys are going to do this. [Charles: Right] So you're going to have a constellation of satellites overhead, and you're going to work with different, I keep saying telcos- [Charles: Right] I'm sure there's a better–
Charles: Right! So, in, in the United States, the big three are Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile. We will work with the mobile network operators and, you’ll just, we'll, you’ll get our service through your MNO, your mobile network operator. It'll, it'll just be offered on your plan. It'll be dependent on AT&T, Verizon, or T-Mobile. Overseas it'll be Orange, or MTN, or SoftBank, or a hundred other MNOs that you'll get our services from them.
Our satellites fly over the entire world and in the future you will stay connected everywhere. And eventually, you'll have you, you, won't be able to tell the difference. Maybe the first five to 10 years, you'll be able to tell the difference, but over time, we'll get the satellites to get faster and faster and faster until they catch up. And then it'll be seamless. You'll have broadband everywhere directly to your phone. [Niki: and everyone will have broadband everywhere!] And everyone will have it! Including in the poorest parts of the world.
We're going to connect billions of people who can't afford a mobile phone. In Africa, right?, people, y’know, make five bucks a day and you're thinking, “Well, they can't afford it.” Well, actually they can afford a mobile phone. You can get a refurbished feature phone in Africa for $2-$5. What you can’t afford to do is throw away $2-$5-a whole day’s wages when you have no connectivity where you live or work, right? But the moment you have connectivity and, and we are, the MNOs in Africa, who we are working with, our first contract in Africa was the Central African Republic, and they will sell it at the price that is affordable, for the, for the local users. And we can do that.
Niki: So you are fixing a safety issue for people who might be in the middle of a natural disaster, wherever they live. A safety and connectivity and economic issue for people who are in far-flung or remote places. They're not going to sit- there aren't going to be cell towers built there. It doesn't make any sense. So your constellation of satellites and it'll take years to get to the point where you can do this, but this is your goal. You- This is your goal.
Charles: This is our goal. So we've already proven the tech. Our satellite, uh, in orbit today, is registering hundreds of phones even here on the east coast and where, according to the MNOs, there's no black spots. But if there were no black spots we wouldn't be registering anybody.
And so, we're connecting people. It'll solve when the hurricane takes out the network and then its instant backup. When the fires in California take out the network, it'll be instant back up. When there are tornadoes, which just happened, the huge storm through Kentucky and several other states, it'll be instant backup.
And so we will help save lives. And for those who we bring connectivity, we're going to bring the 21st century to them. Right? It'll, it's, in fact, one of the biggest proven ways to promote economic growth is connectivity. If you can provide mobile connectivity to people in rural remote communities, whether in the United States or in the poorest parts of emerging markets of the world, we will drive growth.
Niki: Just to tie this together. I just think people need to cheese it on being so mad at billionaires because the billionaires are at least helping with this [Charles: Right] low-cost rocket launch that's going to help other [Charles: Yes] entrepreneurs like you create systems.
Charles: I just think that the people who are criticizing the billionaires don't understand the potential promise of space to help so many people here on earth. Right? If we actually can help pull billions of people out of poverty using, y’know, innovative space technology. Y’know, the billionaires who are investing in these reusable rockets, you know, are helping bring that to the world.
Niki: So, let's talk about another issue that's happening in space that I've been reading about, which is space junk, which I know is not the correct term for it, but all this [Charles: Space junk is a good one, space debris. It's a problem!] What's the deal with space junk? And, and I know that's gonna affect you because you've got these low earth orbit satellites that you need to put up and that you don't want them banging into, [pause] defunct-
Charles: Well, there's a bunch of debris in orbit. It's, it's slowly de-orbiting and coming down, and if you get too much of it, it'll destroy. Y’know, this is a global commons in orbit, right? It's a common resource we're all using, and you have people throwing away stuff there. It's like going out in the middle of the street- y’know, a hundred, 150 years ago, people in cities would go out in the street and throw their refuse in their trash. We figured out how to, y’know, stop that, right?
We had, a, a means to clean up the trash in the streets and, and we need to figure that out in space. It is a big problem. And if there's debris flying around, crashing into other things, creating more debris, and they actually have a thing called a runaway Kessler effect- it was a NASA engineer who figured this out. That at some point there's too much junk and it crashes into each other and it makes more junk, which crashes into more things. And pretty soon, low-earth orbit is a wasteland, and you can't build anything there, and you can't use it. All these benefits I'm talking about, it, it might be coming to pass here in the near future, unless we get our arms around it and solve it.
Niki: So, it is a huge issue because this is a natural, a shared natural resource. That's being junked up. As we speak! [Charles: Yes!] And who's, who's mostly to blame. I'm saying this- that's a leading question; I know right now someone to blame is Russia. But what else is happening? How does this stuff end up there and just get stuck?
Charles: Well, it's a combination of actors. So, it's- there's a lot of historic junk up there. It used to be the “big sky’ idea. And the truth is, is, if you didn't have a ton of satellites and lower than that, that it wasn't a problem, right? If it's occasional things that crash, it’s when things get too dense it's an emerging effect that is getting to such an extent that they're compounding on each other. And, all of these things adding together with big LEO satellites, including our constellation, we’ve applied for over 5,000 satellites. And you need people to change how they operate so they don't create space junk.
Our satellites intentionally de-orbit, our satellites are small and we also- there's a big prof- you know, there's countries doing anti-satellite tests. China did one, about a decade ago, and created thousands of pieces of debris and Russia just did another ASAT test that, y’know, in the last couple months, and that's created, they estimate, thousands of pieces that will be observable and probably tens of thousands of pieces that could be destructive, but are too small to see.
And it could, actually, and I hope not [knocking sound] I'm knocking on wood, is that it could destroy the international space station. It's right above the space station. The astronauts in the space station have already, y’know, jumped into the rescue vehicles, temporarily, as some debris from the ASAT test was passing.
And it's just a big problem. And then there's just a lot of other problems about how governments are, kind of, haven't been paying attention to this and allowing bad actors to play games. You have, uh, companies who are forum shopping for governments to allow them to launch into space that won't stop them and don't have the ability to assess the overall re-risk.
Niki: In these other more developed countries, we have arrangements where the company that allows the launch is liable for things that happen with what goes up into space. But that only works for the countries that are in this agreement or these sort of-
Charles: [interrupts] So there's, there's a great structure for international treaties and policy that can fix a good deal of the problem, it’s the Outer Space Treaty, and they have what they call a liability convention and registration commission. That- every site launched in space is supposed to have a responsible nation that registers that satellite with the United Nations and says, if this satellite causes debris and destroys something, it destroys the international space station, it destroys other satellites, or it comes down through the atmosphere and it kills somebody, it’s, it we will, we’re liable.
And what that means is, countries take this seriously. They assess the risk of this satellite. And if it's too risky, they say, I'm not going to register this. And if nobody registers it, then supposedly, the theory is, nobody will launch it and nobody will license it for operating in, inside, their countries. It was set up for that reason 50 years ago that the, uh, the international partners, including Russia and China, all agreed we should not allow space junk to happen. And so, if they, if they close this loophole for these form shoppers and that'll solve a good deal of the problem.
Niki: So, I want to back up and make sure I'm getting this cause it's really the first time I've ever thought. Two minutes ago. [chuckles] So, China and Russia are doing sort of defense activities that have created some of this junk, but then there's the forum shopping by commercial companies where they just go to a country and they can launch it without having to take the cost and planning of a de-orbiting plan, right?
Charles: Right. And, and well, they don't have to take the risk. If, if you put up a satellite into space and it destroys the international space station or a bunch of other satellites, the worst that can happen to you as a company is you go bankrupt and then they could come, they can't come sue you for the tens of billions of dollars of damage you do- you're bankrupt. And so everybody else is left holding the bag, right? It's a heads, I win, tails, you lose. Right? It's asymmetric risk. And so that's why countries need to sign up to this that have the ability to pay. And that's why the original designers of international law in space said, “We need to have countries sign up to that. Not just a company.”
Niki: I had no idea that it was quite this dire, even though I've kind of seen the headlines, but we talked before about the movie Gravity, which maybe didn't seem that realistic, but spoiler alert-
Charles: It was a dramatic re-enactment of the worst-case and it, a lot of the physics in it, y’know, originally I think it was the Chinese space station had a problem and then it destroyed the international space station where they're in completely different orbits. [Niki: hah!] And so, it was very, it was very dramatic, y’know, uh, dramatic touches that are not real.
Niki: I just watched the movie Interstellar and I feel like my big takeaway is maybe Matthew McConaughey should maybe come do some PSA's on [chuckle] space policy to help people. It also seemed like it had some dramatic effects, but these movies are interesting because they get people excited about space. [Charles: Right] They get people thinking about it, young people, and they also help us to think through some of the things, whether it's colonies in space [Charles: Right] or junk in space, or even if they're not scientifically accurate.
Charles: I think, the average American citizen knows the future of humanity is dependent on what we do in space. Right? I think, we all know, in the long run, life itself is going to move off the planet into the solar system. Right? And that we're, we're the birth cradle of the only life we know in the universe. Right? And this is really precious and we need to expand life into the universe. And it's, it's part of, y’know, our destiny, is life to expand and we get to protect, we, and we need to protect life here on earth.
Niki: That literally is the premise of Interstellar. Okay! So the last thing which you said, and I sort of feel sad about this, but I've heard you say this on another podcast, which is the idea of all these satellites, including your 5,000 satellites in space. We are not going to know the difference between stars and satellites.
Charles: I think in the long term, it's true. In the short term, we have to protect y’know, do what we can to mitigate the effects on, on astronomy. In the short term, the, the- except for the Hubble space telescope and the James Webb telescope that is going, the primary source of astronomical scientific research is from ground-based telescopes. But, y’know, with the coming of cheap access to space, reusable low-cost rockets.
We're moving from, a, an era of launches per month, to launches per week, to launches per day. The sky is going to be filled with lights. And so, there's a good part in a bad part of that, right? For, for every advancement in humanity. And the bad part is, is, it's gonna, it's gonna make, y’know, astronomy research on the ground, just y’know, nigh impossible. And now, in the short term, you can do some things SpaceX is trying to do, and Lynk will try to do, to mitigate that impact. But in the long-term, I don't, you can't turn back progress. So, the solution, in the long-term, is the best science for astronomy is going to be telescopes in orbit and you can build massively large, arbitrarily, large telescopes and orbit that will, can do, things that you never can do having the telescope here on earth. And we'll build telescopes, we’re, y’know, CalTech is designing, a, a hundred-meter telescope today that you can never build on earth. It's, just, gravity would deform it. And you can build that in orbit and that telescope can basically see continents on planets around other stars. Right?
Niki: I think it's interesting that as we talk through this. You're thinking about it, which you should, about the impacts of all this light in space on earth-based astronomy and astronomers in their work. And I'm thinking about it, about how it makes me feel about the sky. [chuckles] [Charles: Right] And I had this moment 20 years ago, I was in the Outback, and it was the first time I really saw stars, real stars [Charles: Right] without light pollution, and it was so powerful. [Charles:It’s amazing.] It's incredible! And most people right now, certainly in the United States, there's too much light pollution to actually see anything anyway. So maybe, if we can get to the point of thinking of these new little twinkling things in the sky as actually quite positive and progressive and are going to help us get to the next phase of what we need technologically. Maybe we’ll feel better?
Charles: There is a way, Niki, that you can observe the night sky without satellites obstructing your view. You'll have to take a trip to the moon and observe the sky from there, but people on earth are going to see in the future, not too distant future, that there's going to be tons of lights in the sky that are moving as well as stationary. And it'll be just an aspect of, of, uh, y’know, an emerging civilization of, y’know, that is doing amazing things and expanding, into the, into the solar system.
Niki: Okay, well, let's get the costs down. I'll go up to the moon, I'll get my, y’know, I'll get my fill of the stars, and then I'll feel better about all of this.
Charles: Yes! And, and, uh, that's how we'll solve it. And there'll be thousands of people taking trips to space. So, that's another beneficiary of low cost access to space. We're seeing all these space tourists, but the cost, the trip is going to come down and down and down. [Niki: And it's going to get safer] And safer and safer and safer. So, just like aviation, right? There in the first couple of decades of aviation, it was really expensive to get a trip. And it was really risky. And now you're actually, technically, safer in the plane than you are driving to the airport.
Niki: You definitely are. Thank you for coming on and explaining this. Thank you for the work that you're doing. I know you, whenever you start a commercial space business, it's, it's technical. It's not like starting a tech company with an app out of a garage. It takes enormous investments in engineering. The stakes are really high when you're testing, you've got some satellites up, you're going to have more, and I'm wishing you all the best and all the luck with Lynk.
Charles: So, thank you, Niki. There is never a boring moment at Lynk. So, looking forward to, to working with everybody in your audience, uh, we, we care deeply about space policy and working with the U.S. government. And I know you got a good audience there and the intersection of technology.
Niki: Yeah, everybody go work on space.
Niki: This wraps Season One of Tech’ed Up. Be sure to follow us wherever you get your podcasts and if you enjoy the show and are listening on Apple or Spotify, please consider giving us a rating or review. You can also learn more about the show on TechedUp.com.