With customers in 106 different countries, C-COM Satellite Systems is a global leader in the development and deployment of commercial grade, mobile satellite-based technology. The Ottawa-based company helps people around the world access high-speed Internet, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and video services from their vehicles, while stationary.
C-COM’s 27 different antenna models have become favourites among disaster management firms, fire departments, oil and gas giants, the military, banks and insurance companies as well as government agencies and telephone companies – anyone who needs to connect in areas where no connectivity exists. But the team is not resting on their laurels. After featuring the company in 2014, Business in Focus sat back down with Founder, President and CEO, Leslie Klein, Ph.D., P.Eng, to hear the latest developments.
Dr. Klein launched C-COM in 1997 because he believed the Internet would revolutionize the way people communicated. His insight was correct, of course, and it allowed him to get in on the ground floor to develop reliable connectivity for customers around the world – especially those outside the reach of traditional services. Twenty-three years later, his company remains on the leading edge of new developments that have the potential to greatly impact the industry.
The team is currently developing a new phased array antenna technology in partnership with a renowned research team at the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Intelligent Antenna and Radio Systems. “We’ve been working on this technology for the last four years,” Dr. Klein says. “It’s a revolutionary new product that ultimately will replace many of the existing parabolic antennas that are typical for satellite connectivity.”
These parabolic antennas are the current industry standard but are large, heavy, and unable to handle multiple satellites simultaneously, nor are they useable in today’s on-the-go connectivity environments “They are not able to provide the type of connectivity that is required for satellites that are constantly moving,” Dr. Klein explains. “Geostationary satellites that use these fixed parabolic antennas are okay if you’re not moving, but if you are moving and the satellite is also in motion (Low Earth Orbit Satellites), you need a new type of antenna.” C-COM’s new phased array antenna will electronically scan the sky and be able to connect with multiple satellites simultaneously while on the move.
Dr. Klein believes “these types of antennas will become ubiquitous for delivering high-speed Internet, not only to consumers but also to commercial users and people on the move.” Whether traveling by plane, boat, train, or car, people need technology that will keep them reliably connected so they never have to go offline. “We believe that what we are developing will have a tremendous impact on the delivery of high-speed broadband over satellite,” Dr. Klein summarizes.
Developing this level of technology does not happen overnight, but the effort will pay off, both for the company and for people everywhere. “It’s a very complex and complicated process,” Dr. Klein says. “It takes many, many years to come up with a technology like this and more years to refine it and bring it to the level of marketability, where it will at some point be available to the three and a half billion people who are without Internet connection today.” C-COM has just been awarded $1 million in funding from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to continue developing the technology over the next two years.
In addition, the company is working with a European consortium “that is looking for the next generation 5G+ type antenna, which will deliver significantly more benefit – up to a hundred times more bandwidth than is possible today with 5G services,” Dr. Klein says. The consortium is developing this next generation product which will benefit cellular and satellite users alike and will utilize specialized technology that builds upon the C-COM-developed patented phased array antenna as one of the building blocks.
Last year, the company launched an exciting new product, the iNetVu® Manpack, which allows the user to carry this light, easy to assemble antenna with them and to connect to the Internet from anywhere – no matter how remote. The carbon fibre antenna is assembled like a Lego,” Dr. Klein says. “You can put it together within five minutes without any tools; it fits into a backpack and weighs less than 25 kg.” The equipment “just snaps together,” is transportable by one person, and can be deployed with a single press of a button. “Within less than sixty seconds, the antenna will find the desired satellite and connect the user to the Internet. We have had great success with this product. We sold more than a hundred systems last year to a significant customer who is using it for disaster management and cellular backhaul.”
Indeed, the product is ideal for disaster management personnel who must navigate unknown terrain or high-pressure situations when communications are down. “When you lose a cell tower, you could put one of these on your back and go outside in the middle of nowhere and essentially use it for cellular backhaul to replace a downed cell tower,” Dr. Klein says. “Or just use it from any remote location; for example, to communicate in much the same way that you would be communicating from your office.”
COVID-19 has made a significant impact on the industry at large. “The existing situation is certainly not very pleasant,” Dr. Klein says. “There have been some bankruptcies and some tightening of belts and it’s not helping our business.” Fortunately the market is already beginning to rebound. “The COVID situation has certainly put a damper into the sales and profitability of a lot of companies that [do business with] C-COM, but we are seeing an improved market in the third quarter of our fiscal year and we hope that the existing situation improves further in the fourth quarter.”
Being well prepared for this unforeseen challenge has helped C-COM to ride out the storm without significant effect. “C-COM is a profitable company; it has no debt. It pays dividends. And we have over $22 million worth of working capital. Our ready to ship inventory valued at over $7 million dollars makes it possible for the company to respond rapidly to customer needs and to deliver quantity of antenna systems within days of receipt of orders. Since the company is profitable, has no debt and has product available to sell, we are able to weather this pandemic better than others who need to wait for their supply chains to ramp up production before they can start selling product,” Dr. Klein explains. “We are expecting demand to increase rapidly as this situation improves. C-COM is in a very good position to sell its products and also service its customers and integrators. So while the existing situation is not ideal and sales have slowed down compared to last year, we are in a very healthy position to weather this pandemic and get over it without any major problems.”
With the new phased array antenna on the horizon, there is plenty to be optimistic about for the future, despite the current environment. “We are expecting to have the phased array antenna tested over satellite before the end of the year, if everything goes well,” Dr. Klein says. “Hopefully sometime next year we should have Beta products we can show customers and allow them to test this new technology by deploying them on a number of the low earth satellites that are going up.”
Thus far, the technology is already proving to have great potential – and this is just the beginning. “We are hoping that this new phased array antenna will take the company to the next level and will help us move the company into a different league,” shares Dr. Klein. Add to that the success of its new iNetVu® Manpack antenna coupled with the potential of the development of the new 5G+ technology, and the company is sure to have a significant impact around the globe.