Filling in coverage gaps from space
Reprinted from Verge article by
Loren Grush@lorengush 8/2/2019
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that launched to the International Space Station last week carried a tiny package that could eventually lead to the smartphone you have in your pocket getting cell service from space. If it works, the instrument could be a precursor to a giant constellation of thousands of mini-satellites that function as cell towers circulating all over the globe.
The package is the product of a startup called UbiquitiLink, the latest company to propose putting a mega-constellation of satellites into low orbit above Earth. But unlike many of these other proposed satellite projects — such as those of SpaceX, OneWeb, or Amazon — UbiquitiLink is not hoping to beam specialized internet connections from space. Instead, the company is solely focused on cellphone service, with the goal of placing small satellites into orbit that any mobile phone can connect to seamlessly, without any changes being made to the phones themselves. “There are 5.2 billion phone users on the planet,” Charles Miller, co-founder and CEO of UbiquitiLink, tells The Verge. “We’re going to turn all their phones into satellite phones.”
The objective isn’t to completely replace the need for cell towers on the ground, though. No matter what, Earth-based cell towers will provide faster coverage than cell service from space, says Miller. Instead, the idea behind UbiquitiLink is to provide additional cell coverage to regions outside of the range of conventional towers, such as rural or hard-to-reach areas. “It’s filling in the gaps — the black spots all over the world,” says Miller, who estimates that an average of 750 million cellphone users don’t have connectivity at any given time. To close those gaps, UbiquitiLink says it has developed a way to trick any person’s phone into connecting with an overhead satellite whenever the device is out of range of a cell tower.
That means all of the heavy lifting would be left to a person’s cell service provider, not the cellphone user. UbiquitiLink plans to offer this capability to mobile network operators, and then these companies can decide how to distribute it to the consumer — perhaps for an extra fee or baked into an existing deal. And Miller is confident people will want the option. “There’s peace of mind and safety here of being able to be connected all the time,” he says. “And our data suggests that the people in rural or remote areas are willing to switch [providers] based on if they had our service or not.”
Miller says he first came up with the idea along with his co-founder, Margo Deckard, after doing some analysis for nonprofits responding to the Ebola crisis in Africa. Many of the aid workers were using satellite terminals to send messages through their phones, which quickly ate up data. Decker then posed the question of whether or not a satellite could connect directly to a phone. “I looked down, and I go, ‘why not?’”
The Ubiquitlink team claims to have made some major breakthroughs that will make this concept possible. First, the team says it has taken the standard software that ground cell towers use to connect to phones and put it into their satellites with modifications to link up to phones on the ground whenever there isn’t a ground cell tower nearby. This was tricky, says Miller, because a mobile phone doesn’t really want to connect with a satellite. The device will notice that the object is moving through the sky, which isn’t ideal for a good connection. The satellite is also a lot farther away than a cell tower should be. Phones will disconnect from a cell tower when they’re more than 21 miles (35 kilometers) away, and the satellites flying overhead will be 310 miles (500 kilometers) away.
But the software that UbiquitiLink has developed basically overrides these functions in a standard cellphone, making the device think that the satellite is stable and only 12 miles (20 kilometers) away. “The satellite will actually lie to the phone and say ‘I’m 20 kilometers away,’” says Miller. “And then the phone will say, ‘okay,’ and then try to communicate back.” There will be a delay, of course, but Miller says the phone will tolerate it thinking there is simply some congestion. Then the satellite will beam the cell signal to other satellites in the constellation, which will eventually send the signal to a ground station that patches into the cell network. “The satellite will actually lie to the phone and say ‘I’m 20 kilometers away.’
Another major breakthrough that Miller boasts is that these satellites will communicate with phones using the same radio frequencies that are already allocated for cell service providers. That’s big, since the spectrum of radio frequencies that communication devices can use is finite. Satellite operators are constantly fighting for access to certain bands of radio frequencies in order to communicate with their various technologies. But there is a piece of the spectrum already allotted for cellular devices, and Miller says their satellites will simply communicate within that band.
That’s what UbiquitiLink is testing out with the recent payload sent to the ISS. “We’re in the process of proving with our test satellites that we can share spectrum that’s already in the phone that’s for terrestrial uses for space, and that it will not cause harmful interference,” says Miller. Astronauts on board the ISS are tasked with putting the UbiquitiLink test payload inside a Cygnus cargo capsule, which has been docked with the station since April. Next week, the capsule will depart the space station, and that’s when UbiquitiLink’s testing will begin. First they’ll test 2G and then LTE from space.
This will be the company’s second in-space test. The team will launch a third test payload in December and a couple more next spring. If testing goes well, then UbiquitiLink will start signing up customers and raise more money in addition to the $12 million they’ve raised to do these demonstration flights. Ultimately the goal is to create a fleet of spacecraft that weigh just 55 pounds (25 kilograms). Between 24 to 36 spacecraft can provide coverage every hour over a large swath of the Earth, according to the company. But to really provide global coverage, UbiquitiLink will petition the Federal Communications Commission to put up thousands of satellites, just like SpaceX, Amazon, and OneWeb want to do.
UbiquitiLink doesn’t need to develop and produce hardware for each customer
Such a massive constellation would further add to the growing amount of space debris around Earth. But Miller contends UbiquitiLink’s constellation will be distinct from those other projects, since these spacecraft are much smaller and more lightweight than those proposed by SpaceX or OneWeb. That reduces their footprint in space and makes them relatively inexpensive to make and launch. “We’ll need one-tenth the launch vehicles, and we’ll get many more satellites per launch,” says Miller. He expects the full development cost to be between $1 to $2 billion.
Another thing that makes this project cheaper is that UbiquititLink doen’t need to develop any hardware for the customers on the ground – what the industry calls “user terminals.” To access SpaceX and OneWeb’s constellations, customers will have to install a user terminal in their homes in order to receive internet connection from the satellite constellation. But the user terminals needed for UbiquitiLink are simply people’s phones, which consumers already own. That also saves on costs, Miller argues, since UbiquitiLink doesn’t need to develop and produce hardware for each customer.
But Miller says the goal isn’t to beat out these other satellite constellations or even compete with ground-based cell towers. UbiquitiLink is only supposed to be used whenever normal Wi-Fi and cell coverage isn’t available. “The moment you walk outside of that Wi-Fi hotspot into the remote area, you will have no connectivity, you will have zero G,” says Miller. “That where we will fill in the gap.”