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Satellite startup snags funding for "cell towers in space"

Cygnus spacecraft as it is leaving the International Space Station with UbiquitiLink's payload attached
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.