Big Interview

Elastic network in the sky and under the sea

Robert Brumley hiz rez image.jpg

Bob Brumley is planning an SDN that will use fibre and laser satellites to supply metaverse content and games around the world with low latency. He also wants to replace TCP/IP, he tells Alan Burkitt-Gray

What technology do you need to get hyperscale content – movies, sports, latency-sensitive gaming and so on – to all their fans around the world, the people who are your customers? And how about virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI)? Some would say the complex set of fibre networks that make up the world’s telecoms infrastructure. Others would suggest low or medium orbit satellites.

Bob Brumley is running a company that wants to do both, starting with fibre and moving on to the satellites, connected by lasers and able to deliver services to micro data centres that are just milliseconds away from customers anywhere in the world from central Africa to Western Australia to the middle of South America. They will all work together in a software-defined network (SDN), he says. But he is not stopping there.

He wants to reinvent the fundamental structure of the internet by replacing TCP/IP, the transmission control protocol/internet protocol that has been part of the internet for 50 years.

It takes a long time to get an ambitious company on to the road. Brumley has been sharing his thoughts and plans about Laser Light Communications with me for two years, but the record shows he has been its CEO for even longer – since 2012. Now after 10 years, he is hoping the company will get off the ground, and under the sea, this year.

Self-provisioning

Fundamental to his aim is to have a common, but advanced, SDN that will run all of the network. “Customers will self-provision,” he says. “It will be an elastic network with high efficiency.”

The main users will be the hyperscalers – the giant data centre operators – and content providers which want a data platform that reaches everywhere.

Yes, many of these networks already reach much of the world, but the content is cached in data centres in big cities ready for use, and their customers might be thousands of kilometres away.

Instead, Brumley wants to install a global network of micro data centres, each with a direct connection – fibre at first and then laser-connected satellites. Los Angeles and other centres of creation, mainly in the US and Europe, will be directly connected to communities across the world. If your customers are in Nairobi, he says, the content will go to a micro data centre in Nairobi, not to Cape Town, 4,000km away.

Brumley says this would men “latency improves and the cost goes down”. Gaming will be much more efficient – almost real-time for people gaming in their own local community, and cross-community gaming would be easier.

In place of TCP/IP, Laser Light’s software will select the best route, taking latency into account and focusing on high-speed routes, not the circuitous kind.

“Micro data centres will bypass the metros,” says Brumley, saying that is where the bottlenecks are. “The network will be built for speed, efficiency and direct routing. It will be an end-to-end global network that operates seamlessly, not a patchwork of networks.”

Brumley has a long history in the telecoms industry, starting as a lawyer – a role that took him into companies such as Bell Atlantic, the predecessor of Verizon, and later becoming general counsel of the US Department of Commerce, appointed by President Ronald Reagan and confirmed by the US Senate.

Marine Corp reservist

Then, when the Iron Curtain had just collapsed, he was one of the westerners who went to Russia to try to establish new business relationships. In his case, he set up an office for a law firm in the far east of Russia, in Vladivostok.

At the same time, he spent 23 years as a reservist in the US Marine Corps, finishing in 1992 as a lieutenant-colonel.

It is clear Brumley still has strong connections with the US Department of Defense, which is highly interested in satellites that use lasers. In March, the Pentagon awarded two companies – neither of them Laser Light – a contract to demonstrate point-to-multipoint communications using lasers in a mesh network of satellites.

Brumley talked of laser satellites’ civil role two years ago in an interview with Capacity. One point we focused on then was the problem of getting laser signals – beams of light – through clouds to the right node. But he was confident that a diversity of ground stations would allow a good service to be achieved in cloudy, rainy places such as the UK. Thanks to recent space technology – weather observation satellites – you can identify nodes that are visible.

With enough nodes, it is possible to achieve the five-nines standard, and back then he told me that Laser Light’s team has calculated how many nodes will be needed in each territory.

From the start, the process of switching from node to node will handled by Laser Light’s new SDN. Of course, that just emphasises the close relationship Laser Light will need in order to maintain between its satellites and its fibres.

Today, Brumley’s vision borders on a re-engineering of the world’s digital infrastructure. It is the sort of thing that Meta, Facebook’s owner, is now talking about. If virtuality is to be a reality, “then you need a network that complements it”, says Brumley. Today’s network is inefficient, so Laser Light wants to redesign the infrastructure to make it suitable for an AI-, VR-based world.

As we speak, his company is running a beta test with a major data-centre operator and has identified the locations of 16 points of presence (PoPs) in the US, Europe, Africa and Australia, roughly 10% of what it will need in the long term. Civil engineering contractors are being selected, he says, and Laser Light is in the process of identifying the precise locations for each micro data centre.

“Our first customers are likely in the third quarter of the year,” he says, with real revenue being earned. The beta trial will expand to more of the world over about 30 months with a target of 150 PoPs and 200 micro data centres by the end of 2024. After that, he says the satellites will start to go up: four at first in late 2024, then four each in the first and the second quarters of 2025. At that point, Laser Light will cut over to its AI-based platform, he says.

Brumley understands more than most how a complex an operation this is. We are talking after he has been up all night meeting with some of the suppliers he has lined up. He is building two SDNs at the same time – a new terrestrial and subsea fibre network, and a new satellite network – which will both work under common control.

Brumley has planned a series of announcements over the coming months as his plans finally appear to be coming together. He has satellite companies bidding for his business and telecoms equipment suppliers bidding for the ground infrastructure. One of the suppliers is planning a design subsidiary in Australia.

“The next big event will be getting the ground network running real traffic,” he says, which will see real revenue flowing into Laser Light, 10 years after he first set it up.