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Cygus spacecraft as it leaves the International Space Satation with UbiquitiLink's payload attached. Photo: ISS Astronauts

UbiquitiLink has raised $5.2 million from Revolution's "Rise of the Rest" Seed Fund and Blazar Ventures, Axios has learned, bringing the commercial space startup's total funding to $12 million.

Why it matters: Falls Church, Va.-based UbiquitiLink is testing the first "cell towers in space" to provide satellite-powered internet service — directly to consumers' cellphones — in rural and unserved areas. According to FCC data, 31% of rural residents don't have fixed broadband service.

The big picture: Big space players such as SpaceX, Viasat and OneWeb are launching low-Earth orbit satellites to beam broadband services around the world. Those services require costly terminals or antennas to be installed on the ground to receive the signal.

  • UbiquitiLink's nanosatellites eliminate that expense by sending data signals directly to standard cellphones, said Charles Miller, co-founder and CEO, and former NASA official.

How it works: The initial service will provide a back-up safety net for services like 911 in remote locations and emergency broadcasts.

  • The company plans to partner with mobile operators to fill in gaps in their networks and in areas where it doesn't make business sense to build cell towers. Consumers would "roam" on the UbiquitiLink network when they lose commercial service at the edge of town.

Compared to what you'd find in urban areas, the initial connections are slower — download speeds of around 180 kilobits per second using LTE, which is in line with 2G speeds. The next cosmic cell tower will be launched next week on a SpaceX rocket to test connectivity across 22 mobile operators around the world in addition to other trial partners.

"It's not perfect, but it's good enough for most," said Miller. "90% of the world has zero Gs. This is about the rest of us — the ones who've been left behind."

As the co-founder of AOL, Revolution CEO Steve Case has a special interest in the company's mission.

"After spending the first part of my career getting America online, I'm excited we are investing in a company trying to connect the world.... UbiquitiLink is another great example of a company scaling outside of Silicon Valley, in this case leveraging the great telecommunications talent that exists in the DC-region."
— Steve Case, Revolution CEO

Yes, but: While the cost of launching satellites in space has come down, it's still an expensive undertaking that will require a lot more money to scale into a commercial service. Miller predicts a minimum viable commercial product would need about $30 million in investment to put half a dozen satellites into orbit.

Go deeper

The new Washington

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Axios subject-matter experts brief you on the incoming administration's plans and team.

Rep. Lou Correa tests positive for COVID-19

Lou Correa. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) announced on Saturday that he has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Why it matters: Correa is the latest Democratic lawmaker to share his positive test results after last week's deadly Capitol riot. Correa did not shelter in the designated safe zone with his congressional colleagues during the siege, per a spokesperson, instead staying outside to help Capitol Police.

Far-right figure "Baked Alaska" arrested for involvement in Capitol siege

Photo: Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The FBI arrested far-right media figure Tim Gionet, known as "Baked Alaska," on Saturday for his involvement in last week's Capitol riot, according to a statement of facts filed in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia.

The state of play: Gionet was arrested in Houston on charges related to disorderly or disruptive conduct on the Capitol grounds or in any of the Capitol buildings with the intent to impede, disrupt, or disturb the orderly conduct of a session, per AP.