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‘Cell tower in space’ start-up raises funds for 2G and 4G nanosatellites

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A Virginia start-up has raised a total of $12 million to build and launch five nanosatellites to connect mobile phones directly.

UbiquitiLink, which calls the project “cell towers in space” has already launched one satellite and plans a second later this month, to test both 2G and 4G connectivity.

“Our ability to connect satellites directly to mobile phones anywhere on Earth solves a fundamental economic problem that limits coverage in remote areas,” said co-founder and CEO Charles Miller, a former senior NASA official.

The company is aiming to launch operational satellites and initial commercial services in 2020.

Its latest funding, of $5.2 million, comes from Blazar Ventures and Revolution Ventures, taking the total investment to $12 million.

Steve Case, chairman and CEO of Revolution, who was a co-founder of AOL, said: “Revolution is excited to invest in technology that is helping to provide global connectivity and is designed to have a significant economic and social impact in rural and remote communities.”

Miller said: “It is economically unaffordable to build cell towers on the ground in communities with low population densities. We are building this solution for the 88 million Americans who live in rural areas and lose coverage at the edge of town.”

But not just the US, he added: “We are also building this solution for the 2.5 billion people in the world who don’t have a mobile phone, many because they are not connected where they live and work.”

UbiquitiLink said on its website that this will give the mobile industry a total addressable market of $400 billion. “The economics of cell towers makes it cost prohibitive to expand into remote areas lacking coverage, whether it’s in rural North America, South-East Asia, Latin America, or Africa,” the company says.

“By being able to charge existing customers a little more for service outside the range of terrestrial towers, the world’s mobile network operators could generate an extra $150 billion in new revenue. And global coverage will create an additional $250 billion in revenue from new customers in remote areas who don’t currently have mobile phones.”

UbiquitiLink says it wants to operate as “a global shared roaming provider”, allowing a phone “to shift seamlessly from a terrestrial tower to a satellite and back to a tower when one is again available”. It adds “our service will require no capital expenditure by MNOs and will work with existing network infrastructure”.

Mark Foster, founding partner at Blazar Ventures and previously the founder of the services provider Neustar, said, “UbiquitiLink is poised to unlock the next growth spurt in the now-flat $1 trillion global mobile industry by providing cost-effective connectivity everywhere on the planet.”

UbiquitiLink says it plans to have “between 24 and 36 satellites in orbit” 500km above the group by 2021. They will serve “anywhere between 55 degrees north and south latitudes”. The 55° north parallel runs through places such as Alaska, Québec, the English-Scottish border, Denmark and Novosibirsk. Coverage as far as the 55° south parallel means Australia, New Zealand and almost all of South America would be covered.

However UbiquitiLink plans to expand services using “several thousand satellites by 2023”, to give continuous global coverage.

UbiquitiLink says it has so far signed trial partnerships with 24 companies, including 18 mobile network operators – representing approximately 1 billion mobile phone subscribers – but does not name any of them.