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Space startup aims to provide connectivity to all via satellites

Nanosatellites are disrupting the economics of many industries and providing unprecedented connectivity to everyone on Earth says Charles Miller, CEO, UbiquitiLink, in an exclusive interview with Geospatial World.

connectivity via satellites
Charles Miller, CEO, Ubiquitilink

How did you come up with the idea of establishing Ubiquitilink and what is your guiding principle?

Our goal is to provide everyone, everywhere mobile connectivity. I’ve spent most of my career in space and satellite industries. As the co-founding CEO of NanoRacks, a world leader in small satellite launch, I know first-hand the advantages and opportunities that satellites bring to the market. Nanosatellites are disrupting the economics of many industries … including unprecedented connectivity to everyone on Earth. No one should die because they had a cell phone in their pocket but no connectivity. No one.

Ubiquitilink plans to build the ‘world’s first cell tower in space’. Could you tell us more about this project and how it would impact the global telecommunications industry?

In February 2019, we completed initial space-to-ground tests of the fundamental technology required to provide connectivity for cell phone users virtually anywhere on the globe using low-earth-orbit nanosatellites. Our technology allows standard cell phones, without any changes in hardware or software, to be connected everywhere, seamlessly shifting from a terrestrial tower to a satellite overhead.

UbiquitiLink provides mobile network operators (MNOs) with a $400 Billion opportunity to create new revenue streams, by providing coverage for the 90% of the planet that terrestrial towers cannot economically serve. This is perhaps the largest opportunity for new top-line revenue growth for MNOs in the next two decades. Not only will UbiquitiLink create a new source of growth for MNOs, but it will also create a safety net for people working or traveling in remote locations. We can provide relief agencies and first-responders a highly reliable means of warning everybody of impending natural disasters, and instant communications backup after the natural disaster hits.

You intend to broadcast warnings to isolated people during the time of natural disasters and also help small farmers coping with agrarian distress. How would you obtain the relevant data and relay it?

Yes, we can broadcast warnings of impending natural disasters, from a satellite in orbit, directly to your standard smartphone or feature phone. The emergency response authorities in each country will decide when to broadcast, what to broadcast, and where to broadcast.  We will make sure it gets to everybody everywhere.

We can provide connectivity with existing cell phones in the most isolated areas – it can be on the high seas, or high in the deepest part of a mountain range, or the most remote desert. You will always be connected. Over time we will continuously improve our emergency response services. We plan to give relief agencies and first-responders a highly reliable means of communication after terrestrial networks are knocked down following natural and man-made disasters. When the hurricane, earthquake, tsunami, tornado, or fire takes out the cell towers you will have instant backup communication from space.

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connectivity via satellites
Image Courtesy: TechCrunch

How many satellites does UbiquitiLink have in orbit currently and how many more do you plan to launch over the years?

We launched our second payload to space aboard the SpaceX CRS18 on July 21st.  It will provide GSM (2G) and then LTE (4G) connectivity. Following additional testing planned for later this year, we plan to launch our first commercial operational satellites the end 2020.

Who are some of your major collaborators and technology partners?

UbiquitiLink has signed trial agreements with 30 partners, including 21 Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) representing approximately 1.1 billion mobile phone subscribers. The service will be sold to phone subscribers through their MNOs.  We want to make the experience as seamless as possible to the end-user. You will have one phone, and one phone plan. When you roam on to our “cell network in space”, the charges will show up on your existing plan at the end of the month.

How would you ensure cost-effectiveness which is a core consideration when we talk of high-speed connectivity?

The most expensive connectivity is zero connectivity. Any connectivity is infinitely better than zero connectivity.

Our biggest problem in the early years is that there is such a huge latent demand for connectivity in remote areas. We are worried it will swamp our network. We plan to rapidly bring down prices by reinvesting our profits in rapidly building up the capacity network. In the long-term, prices will converge between cell towers on Earth and cell towers on the ground.

With the advent of 5G and AI, where do you think the future of Earth Observation is headed?

Miniaturization of sensors and availability of small satellites will further spur innovation and improve connectivity. UbiquitiLink is proof of the innovation in connectivity from small satellites.

Cell towers only connect 10% of the Earth’s surface. A lot of small communities and towns have been left behind because it is not profitable to build cell towers everywhere. The lack of connectivity is a major economic problem, and a safety problem, for billions of people. Our service will literally save tens-of-thousands of lives per year; and improve the lives of more than a billion people.

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