After reading an article about a company that has figured out how to use satellites to offer small data messages to existing cellphones, I had to learn more. If the technology works for cellular standards such as NB-IoT, it could be a boon to companies wanting to connect devices in remote areas without having to pay what I think of as a “satellite tax.”
Because satellite signals are sent from so far away (space), devices have historically required large, battery-intensive modules to receive them. The modules were also dedicated to a specific frequency, which meant you needed a purpose-built, large device that had a battery the size of brick attached to it. That is the satellite tax.
There’s also an additional charge associated with using satellite connectivity services because the infrastructure required by a satellite network is so expensive. The rise of nanosatellites, small satellites that operate in low Earth orbit and cost less to launch and build than regular satellites, are changing the cost associated with connection.
And now UbiquitiLink is aiming to reduce the costs associated with the devices on the ground by allowing today’s cell phones to receive satellite signals without any special chips or hardware modifications.
The startup was formed three years ago by Charles Miller to take advantage of the rise in small satellites. They orbit closer to the ground, so their signals can reach phones with a software modification designed by UbiquitiLink. Additionally, to ensure that the space-based signals reach today’s phones, the satellite has to narrow the angle over which it transmits data. That means you need more satellites to cover a particular area. But since nanosatellites are cheaper to make and launch, doing so isn’t a problem for UbiquitiLink.
Finally, phones and the satellites have to use the lower end of the cellular spectrum, which can go farther without decay. Part of this is due to a software adaptation on the phones so they can read signals that are further away instead of ignoring them; the rest depends on the spectrum allocated for various services. They won’t deliver 5G in the millimeter wave, for example.
Essentially the company is taking the cheapness of nanoscale satellites and the demand for services that don’t need constant connectivity (like IoT or critical messaging), and using them to build a service that would have been cost prohibitive a decade ago. Additionally, the potential market is bigger, thanks to connected objects that don’t need a lot of data and will travel in and out of cellular dead zones.
The downside for those of us interested in the IoT side of the technology is that Miller is starting with the more abundant LTE tech, which he plans to use for messaging. The company can work with other LTE standards such as NB-IoT, but that will cost more money and right now, the number of 2G- and LTE-capable devices are far greater.
When more NB-IoT devices hit the market it will make sense to build space-based infrastructure so they always have a connection, but it wouldn’t make sense to spend millions today to launch satellites that will only talk to relatively few devices. As for the cost, Miller was coy, but he said that it should cost less than $1,000 per kilogram to launch his satellites.
The company has raised $6.5 million in outside funding and has already completed one test run of its technology. It plans to send another test satellite up in the summer and hopes to have a network that can cover the globe by 2021.