A tiny startup called UbiquitiLink is testing technology that could connect virtually all of the world's existing smartphones directly to a satellite. If it works and it's widely deployed, such technology would essentially eliminate every outdoor dead zone in the world.
"This is a really big idea," said Charles Miller CEO of UbiquitiLink.
And, although UbiquitiLink came out of stealth mode just a few weeks ago, it already has some operators, both big and small, attached to its ongoing tests. As noted by the Wall Street Journal, Vodafone and Telefonica are among the 18 mobile network operators that have successfully tested UbiquitiLink's technology.
In the United States, UbiquitiLink confirmed to Light Reading that Smith Bagley Inc., a tiny wireless network operator offering services under the Cellular One brand in East Arizona, is also testing its technology. (As noted by Allnet Insights & Analytics, Smith Bagley's spectrum was listed in one of UbiquitiLink's filings with the FCC.) That makes sense considering massive areas of East Arizona remain completely off the grid.
So how does UbiquitiLink do it? According to CEO Miller, two years ago the company's engineers essentially solved the two key problems prohibiting satellites from beaming signals directly to smartphones: the doppler shift and the extended range that causes a time delay. "Our technology solves both of those issues so that you can connect to the standard phone in anybody's pocket everywhere," Miller said.
What that means is that UbiquitiLink can blast a 16-pound satellite into space, and that satellite can transmit a standard cellular signal 250 miles down to the surface of the Earth. UbiquitiLink already successfully tested transmissions using 2G signals earlier this year, and this summer it will test a range of 4G signals (basically LTE in every band between 700MHz-960MHz).
The result is that someone way out in the backcountry of Colorado -- someone completely out of range of a terrestrial cell signal -- would be able to send a message or potentially place a call through one of UbiquitiLink's satellites, all using their regular, existing smartphone.
That's the big difference between UbiquitiLink and most other satellite providers: The company's technology can connect satellites to virtually any existing smartphone; users would not have to purchase a new phone to take advantage of the company's services.
So how is Miller taking UbiquitiLink to market? Basically, Miller sees UbiquitiLink as an American Tower in space. He wants the company to launch a fleet of satellites that would provide global services, and then it would sell access to those satellites to mobile network operators like Vodafone or Smith Bagley's Cellular One.
"We negotiate roaming agreements with MNOs around the world," Miller said of UbiquitiLink, which is based in Falls Church, Va., counts around a dozen employees, and has raised around $6.5 million in seed funding.
Miller wants to start that process by raising around $30 million to fund the launch of 3-6 low-Earth orbit (LEO) UbiquitiLink satellites. That fleet would provide connections to just about every place on Earth once every hour or so. Such a design would essentially allow that backcountry traveler in Colorado to blast off a few text messages every day. "Bear chased me up a tree and ate all my food; hiking out tomorrow," for example, or "Too much avalanche danger to descend; will spend the night in a snow cave." (Both of these messages would have been nice to send to my wife, if I had had a connection.)
"We think the killer app to start with in the phone is messaging," Miller explained.
If that initial offering is successful, Miller said UbiquitiLink would then expand its constellation of satellites to a potential maximum of 3,000 to 4,000.
Of course, UbiquitiLink is by no means the only company looking to provide communications services from space. Aside from established satellite telcos like Viasat, Intelsat and Iridium, a wide range of other companies like OneWeb, SpaceX, Swarm Technologies and Telesat are looking to offer faster and more robust satellite-based communications. But most of those companies are looking to blast connections to specialized receivers, not existing smartphones.