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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

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."

Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers

President Biden speaking from Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 21. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers on Friday, citing the outcome of last week's Supreme Court ruling that nullified the administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Why it matters: It's a blow to President Biden's efforts to increase the U.S.' vaccination rates, though much of the federal workforce has already been vaccinated against the virus.