June 24, 2020
Meet Carl Novello, NXTCOMM’s New Chief Technology Officer
A candid conversation with Carl Novello, CTO, on optimizing proven technology that will deliver scalable, low-cost broadband connectivity.
NXTCOMM’s new Chief Technology Officer (CTO) is passionate about connectivity. Having built a career driving antenna innovation in maritime and other mobility markets, Carl Novello knows more than most that until the world has low-cost, high-performance flat panel antenna technology, the dream of broadband-rich connections across markets and applications will remain out of reach.
That’s what makes him excited to be part of NXTCOMM. Defying the typical startup model of building technology from the bottom up, NXTCOMM is optimizing a proven technology that he believes is the holy grail of commercially scalable, low-cost, and high bandwidth broadband.
Below, Novello shares his perspective on the roots of his passion for connectivity, what he’s learned solving the ground system challenge, and the path forward for the industry and NXTCOMM.
How is NXTCOMM's technology and approach different from other antenna firms out there today?
Traditional antenna companies haven’t spent much time focusing on the users and the problem they’re trying to solve for them. End users don’t care about technology; they care about moving data from wherever it is now to where it needs to go affordably. If you understand the user, you win the market. This is what’s most exciting to me about NXTCOMM: our leadership and technical team have spent their careers closer to the user. We understand the connectivity market from all sides, and we’re focused on bringing to market proven technology already flying today as part of a complete solution.
What’s the exciting part of joining NXTCOMM at this point in your career?
It’s the next step in the realization of what I have worked passionately towards for the past 20 years – to bring connectivity to the masses. We all know how society can benefit from internet connectivity – not just from the welfare aspect but also economically. I’ve seen firsthand the difference it can make in people’s lives anywhere in the world. For example, a crew member on a cargo vessel. After taking online courses, he was able to bring himself up through the ranks, moving from the lowest rank to becoming an officer, which made a real impact on his life and his family. That’s not possible without connectivity. Connectivity is the great equalizer.
Throughout my career, I’ve tended to follow projects that helped enable connectivity. I left larger companies because I realized innovation doesn’t come from big companies. Why? There’s too much weight of legacy. With NXTCOMM, we are starting up in the right way with a technology that is applicable to bigger markets and led by a visionary, experienced team of satcom and managed service market leaders.
What were some of your early influences that led you on your current path?
I’ve always been one-part geek but also someone who likes to build stuff people could use. Growing up, my parents placed a heavy emphasis on education, especially math and sciences, from my father, but it was more than just the theory. He and I shared a love of building things; I tinkered with everything from walkie talkies to ham radios. When I was 10 years old, I built my first tracking antenna, to solve a real word problem for a 10 year-old, I wanted to watch cartoons. We had a C-band antenna for satellite TV, and cartoons were on a different satellite than the channel my parents watched. I would have to go outside and unbolt the antenna and move it in azimuth and elevation to watch cartoons. This was a pain, but the real issue was I would always forget to put it back afterwards so my parents could watch the evening news. This got me in loads of trouble. So, I decided to automate it with some motors and electronics.
In high school, my classmates and I started an internet service provider business, targeting seniors because we had grandparents outside the United States with whom we wanted to communicate and share photos and email. This enterprise was sold and eventually acquired by a large ISP that’s now long forgotten. From my ISP experience, I never forgot about the power of technology to connect and transform lives. That was reinforced over the years. Having come from a family of sailors, I’ve spent many years developing solutions for the maritime market. I’ve been that poor guy in the middle of the ocean with no connectivity to the outside the world.
Why is the antenna such an important part of the connectivity equation and such a huge technical hurdle as well?
The simple answer is because satellite capacity is expensive. To illustrate with some numbers, If I have an antenna that has a gain (G/T) of 9 dB/K, and it costs me $100K a month to provide 10 Mbps of download to an airplane. In contrast, if I build a better antenna with a gain of 12 dB/K, that same 10 Mbps throughput now costs me half as much, or spending the same amount, I can go twice as fast, to 20 Mbps.. This is the problem: the size of the antenna dominates its performance. Taking this a step further, electronically steered antennas have lots of advantages over mechanical ones – lower profile, easier to manufacture, better reliability and the potential to be conformal.
What is the number one hurdle to broadband connectivity that must be overcome?
When we are talking about mass-market, broadband connectivity, the biggest single hurdle is the satellites themselves. We’re getting to the limits of capability on the geostationary satellites and the expectations of the users. One of the reasons is the distance in the GEO arc, the satellites are far away.. Using simple math, it takes 560 milliseconds to get up and back from a satellite in the geostationary arc. That is not well suited to the way data is consumed today. That’s where low earth (LEOs) and Medium Earth (MEOs) satellites come in.
One of the exciting things about NXTCOMM is its flexible form factor.
Yes. Many companies talk about form factor as part of their value proposition; however, we offer more modularity because of our fundamental design. The fragmented aperture technology we are commercializing from GTRI has allowed our team to develop a high performing, modular LEGO brick. By design, our LEGO bricks are scalable up or down to any form factor. Being more modular lets us configure products for wider markets instead of having to invent, innovate or iterate a new product every time you want to serve a new market. There’s a big difference between upsizing – taking 20 of these subarrays and putting them together versus having to redesign a subarray for another form factor or use case.
What’s novel about the technology you are commercializing from Georgia Tech?
One is the fact that this is not new, untested technology that requires invention; it requires innovation – ‘I need a slightly different color and different shape. This is in contrast to the proverbial ‘bleeding edge’ of technology, I don’t need to invent something brand new – it simply works.
The other very, very important factor is our partners at Georgia Tech Research Institute and specifically the Institute’s Advanced Concepts Lab Director, who has extensive industry experience. He brings a sense of pragmatism and practicality that most research institutes do not have given his prior experience as VP and Chief Engineer at EMS Technologies (now part of Honeywell Aerospace).
Ever hear a scientist or techie say, ‘It worked in theory?’ For us to realize our vision and disrupt the connectivity market, we need to think of this as a system and part of that system is answering questions such as, ‘How do I manufacture?’ ‘How do I scale?’ ‘How do I support customers?’ ‘Is it affordable’ ‘How do I do everything for hundreds of thousands, millions of users?’ The team at NXTCOMM has built out a high-capacity manufacturing facility and has forged key supply chain relationships that will allow us to scale effectively.
What’s most exciting for me is leveraging GTRI’s technology in wider scale because there are inherent benefits to this technology in aperture efficiency, number one, our capacity to drive both high performance and low cost, and the fact that it’s proven – flying in the space and defense sector on classified applications.
What markets do you see NXTCOMM’s solution ideally suited for?
The four differentiators of size, weight, power and performance of our technology are really a good fit for the mobile connectivity market. We are targeting vehicle, aviation, maritime and government applications – from high-value cargo transport, to high-capacity internet for first responders and the military, to connectivity on airlines. We ultimately intend to scale to wider markets, such as connected car or residential internet / IoT.