Virginia-based space startup company UbiquitiLink has designs on accomplishing a feat that’s eluded scientists and engineers alike for decades—transmitting data straight from small satellites in space to everyday cell phones on the ground, reports The Wall Street Journal.
While it’s an ambitious goal, if accomplished the connections could help provide less costly Internet access for developing and remote regions. There are companies that currently market or plan to offer broadband through satellite services to these areas, but generally those ventures rely on antennas, ground stations or more terrestrial equipment. Any of those solutions not only add costs, but complexity.
Charles Miller, UbiquitiLink chief executive and former Trump administration space advisor was scheduled to reveal preliminary test results at the Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona. The results connected signals from an approximately 16-pound prototype “orbital cell tower” to a cellular device in New Zealand and then the Falkland Islands, according to The Wall Street Journal.
During a February 23 interview, Miller stated previous test failed due to hardware malfunctions in space or signal interference from current users. Miller was expected to reveal successful results for his miniature space transmitter the following day however. He said the transmitter connected to an unmodified cell phone not unlike the ones customers already use.
“We succeeded in demonstrating the fundamental, core technology,” Miller said during the interview. He added that previous proof-of-concept efforts by others all required, “some software or hardware change to the (cellular) device in order to connect.”
Currently, the technology uses existing cellular frequencies and internal phone software to “trick” devices into processing signals as if they were coming from a ground-based tower, rather than more than 250 miles above the earth. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration helped support the experiments.
Depending on future tests’ results, UbiquitiLink will plan to start deploying satellites that weight about 50 pounds apiece by 2020 or 2021, according to The Wall Street Journal. The initial applications could include tracking vehicles, giving emergency vehicles access or providing individual phone users limited Internet connectivity for a few minutes a day when a portion of a limited satellite constellation passes overhead. Miller said the next round of tests may happen during the summer.
While UbiquitiLink does not have any signed agreements with customers or spacecraft production plans, it has signed testing and cooperation agreements with more than a dozen telecom companies around the world. A lot of the participants want to supplement their existing cell tower coverage.
“We are really excited and want to push these innovative solutions along,” Easwaren Siva, general manager of technology strategy for Vodafone Hutchison Australia, one of the test partners told The Wall Street Journal. “This would be transformational for rural and remote Australia,” he added, where traditional terrestrial solutions are too costly.
Meanwhile, space industry officials have voiced support for the concept. Mark Dankberg, chairman and CEO of satellite operator Viasat called UbiquitiLink’s goal, “a very interesting idea.” Viasat is currently planning a different strategy that will focus on bigger, higher altitude satellites that will bring broadband connections to rural areas. The company and Facebook recently announced a joint venture to accelerate deployment of thousands of Wi-Fi hot spots in Mexico where cell services are limited or non-existent. However, Viasat’s vision includes setting up community connections at stores, cafes and additional businesses where residents can use a prepaid card to use the Internet for a limited amount of time, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Regulators have also been a help to UbiquitiLink as the company has received authorization to test on certain terrestrial frequencies, per Mansoor Hanif, chief technology officer for the U.K.’s telecom regulator. According to Hanif, UbiquitiLink’s limited success will likely garner more support for its concept. He stated an interview he felt there’s a lot of interest, especially among mobile operators who want to supplement the ground-based coverage that’s not available or spotty.