‘It’s not technology that will transform society, but people’

29 Jan 2020

Candace Johnson. Image: EBAN

We spoke to Candace Johnson about her career in telecommunications, the golden age of satellites, the future of 5G and her concerns about the climate crisis.

This year’s European Business Angel Network (EBAN) congress is set to be held in Cork, hosting more than 300 business leaders, early-stage investors, business angels, VCs, entrepreneurs and start-ups.

The event will also feature a number of keynote speakers, including entrepreneur and international telecoms expert Candace Johnson, who was a co-initiator of SES Astra and SES Global, one of the largest satellite systems in the world. She later went on to work on a number of satellite and telecoms projects around Europe, and is now an investor in this sector.

Ahead of EBAN 2020, we spoke to Johnson about what drew her to the telecoms industry, her numerous achievements in the field, and why it’s not technology that transforms society, but people.

Where it all began

So where did Johnson’s interest in telecoms come from? “My father was one of the first telecommunications and satellite professionals in the United States,” she told Siliconrepublic.com.

“He worked on the first satellites for the United States government while he was on loan from the US Air Force to president Kennedy and president Johnson at the White House.

“I remember him coming to my fifth-grade class in 1962 when he had just finished helping to launch ‘Early Bird’, one of the first US government satellites.

“He told my class that one day satellites would be used for entertainment, telecommunications, education, and that when we had wars, we would have wars with satellites and peace on earth. From that day on, I was hooked!”

The launch of SES Astra

Two decades after this, Johnson launched SES Astra in 1983. The main goal of this satellite project was to bring “freedom of choice” in television viewing to people across Europe.

“At that time, of course, there was a wall going right through all of Europe, dividing the west from the east. But there were also barriers amongst people and countries in western Europe,” she said.

“In Germany and France, for instance, those countries were not allowed to receive programmes in anything other than the national languages. Almost all television and radio programmes were funded by national governments who controlled what was to be seen and heard.”

‘My father told my class that one day satellites would be used for entertainment, telecommunications, education – from that day on, I was hooked’

“We broke all of the monopolies and then some,” Johnson added.

“Later on, I worked to expand SES Astra’s freedom of choice offering to include private trans-border telecommunications with Teleport Europe in 1991, Europe’s first trans-border B2B telecommunications network, and then to expand its offering again with broadband internet by creating Europe Online in 1993.

“I believe that the satellite industry is now entering its golden age. Further to what my father told my fifth-grade class, I remember him responding to someone who asked him what satellites could be used for. He said, ‘Everything! You just need imagination and barrier-less thinking’.”

Johnson’s achievements

Johnson said that she was fortunate to create many ‘firsts’ from early on in her career.

Besides launching projects with SES Astra, Teleport Europe and SES Global, she was involved in creating the world’s first satellite-based space situational awareness and hyper spectral imaging network with NorthStar Earth and Space.

The entrepreneur and founder is also involved in spacetech venture capital fund, Seraphim Capital, as well as the Oceania Women’s Network Satellite (OWNSAT), which has invested in Kacific to bring broadband internet and critical communications to the Pacific islands.

“I think the thing I am most proud of is indeed being the chief architect of SES Global and making the satellite system SES Astra, which became the world’s largest satellite system in 2001 with the purchase of GE Americom. Today, this is taken for granted, but at the time, this was not the case,” Johnson said.

“Intelsat and Inmarsat, both government-initiated satellite systems, were the two largest satellite systems before this. Americom was number three and SES Astra was number four.

“Yet, I said we could become the world leader in creating a mass-consumer broadband satellite system, providing television, telecommunication and broadband internet by buying GE Americom and putting all of our satellites, ground systems and services together.”

Overcoming challenges

The biggest challenge Johnson faced in her career was during the beginning of the digital revolution in the early ’90s. At this time, SES Astra was the target of a takeover by leading media figures.

“The board of management of SES Astra were open to this offer as we had many bankers on the board and they were not certain of what the digital revolution could bring. As is known, bankers hate risk,” she said.

“I tried to show them that the digital revolution would bring untold opportunities to SES Astra and that, above all, it was important to keep the freedom of choice that had been the DNA of SES Astra.”

This was no easy feat, she added. “I was very scared that I would not be persuasive or strong enough to counter Europe’s largest media moguls and the SES Astra board but, in the end, I won and was able to keep SES Astra independent.”

Now, decades later, Johnson sees another challenge that she wants to fight against. “I believe my and everyone’s biggest challenge is the climate crisis. I am doing everything I can to bring global businesses to do their part in combatting the climate crisis. I am convinced that we can do it if all the top businesses in the world come together.”

The golden age of the satellite industry

When asked about the greatest innovations in telecoms over the past decade, Johnson said: “Certainly the development and miniaturisation of a wide range of active and passive sensors and how they are used to connect everything to everyone and everything, resulting in not only the internet of things, but the internet of everything, everyone and every service.

“This has been a catalyst to bring about a new paradigm leading major innovations, not only in telecommunications, but in every field.”

Johnson added that the world has never needed “so much connectivity, interconnectivity and interactivity”, due to globalisation and the growing internet of things, “which now connects not only people to computers, but things to other things and people by computers”.

‘I am now devoting my time in telecommunications and satellites to combat the effects of the climate crisis’

“As a satellite and telecommunications professional, I have been delighted to see that the miniaturisation of components has brought about a democratisation of space, which I think will allow all of us to have more connectivity, interconnectivity and interactivity at affordable prices for all.

“Autonomous vehicles, robots, virtual reality all now exist and help us not only connect to each other in the world, but also in the universe above us and the sea below us, bringing about new functionalities and contexts.”

Speaking about the next big development in technology, Johnson said that she expects not only industry, but society and humanity as a whole, to be impacted greatly by “the unleashing of the power of the brain”.

“As we get to know more and more about the brain and use it to connect in more perfect, yet to be defined ways, we will be able to transcend boundaries and explore universes, as yet unknown to mankind.

“As someone who spent the first 40 years of her professional life in bringing about universal access – be it to television, media, telecommunications and the internet to citizens of the world – I am now devoting my time in telecommunications and satellites to combat the effects of the climate crisis, but also to learn how to live with it in areas that can no longer be saved.”

The future of 5G

One of the most talked about trends in telecoms at the moment, however, is 5G. “As someone who grew up in the telecommunications industry, I know that it is not the technology that will transform society, but rather people,” Johnson said, regarding potential future developments.

“Technology is just a tool to be used by people. As such, I think that today’s society and citizens are in a position to be able to use 5G in ways that will hopefully make the world better.

Elaborating on the use cases she envisions for 5G, Johnson said: “In particular, I am thinking of inclusive education, remote diagnostics and tele-medicine, efficient use of physical and transportation infrastructures, seamless temporal and spatial communications, and facilitation and enhancement of true communication between people with real-time translation, visual support and virtual reality.”

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic