The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched at the International Space Station last week carried a small package that could eventually cause your smartphone in your pocket to receive cellular service from space. If it works, the instrument could be a precursor to a gigantic constellation of thousands of mini-satellites that act as cell towers circulating around the globe.
The package is the product of a startup called UbiquitiLink, the latest company to propose putting a mega constellation of satellites into a low orbit above the earth. But unlike many of these other proposed satellite projects ̵
The goal is not to replace the need for cell towers completely on the ground, though. Either way, terrestrial cell towers will provide faster coverage than cellular service from space, Miller said. Instead, the idea behind UbiquitiLink is to provide extra cell coverage to regions outside the conventional towers area, such as rural or hard-to-reach areas. "It fills the gaps – the black spots around the world," says Miller, who estimates that an average of 750 million mobile phone users have no connection at any time. To close the gaps, UbiquitiLink says it has developed a way to trick anyone's phone into connecting to an overhead satellite when the device is out of range of a cell tower.
This means that all the heavy lifting would be left to a person's mobile phone provider, not the mobile phone user. UbiquitiLink plans to offer this opportunity to mobile network operators, and then these companies can decide how to distribute it to the consumer – perhaps for an additional fee or baked into an existing agreement. And Miller is sure people will want the alternative. "There is safety and security here by being able to stay connected all the time," he says. "And our data suggests that people in rural or remote areas are willing to switch [providers] based on whether or not they had our service."
Miller says he first came up with the idea with his co-founder, Margo Deckard, after doing an analysis for nonprofit organizations responding to the Ebola crisis in Africa. Many aid workers used satellite terminals to send messages through their phones, which quickly consumed data. Decker then asked whether a satellite could connect directly to a phone or not. "I looked down and I go, & # 39; why not? & # 39;"
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 the terrestrial tower uses to connect to phones and place it in their satellites with modifications to connect to phones on the ground when there is no ground tower nearby. This was difficult, Miller says, because a cell phone doesn't really want to connect to a satellite. The device will notice that the object is moving through the sky, which is not ideal for a good connection. The satellite is also much further away than a cell tower should be. Phones will disconnect from a cell tower when they are more than 35 kilometers away, and the satellites flying over your head will be 500 kilometers away.
But the software developed by UbiquitiLink basically overrides these features in a regular mobile phone, so the device thinks that the satellite is stable and only 20 kilometers away. "The satellite will actually be on the phone and say 'I'm 20 miles away,'" Miller says. "And then the phone will say & # 39; ok & # 39 ;, and then try to communicate back." There will be a delay, of course. but Miller says the phone can withstand it and thinks it is simply a little overload, then the satellite will radiate the cell signal to other satellites in the constellation, which will eventually send the signal to a ground station that enters the cell network.
Another major breakthrough that Miller can boast is that these satellites will communicate with phones using the same radio frequencies that already exist This is huge, since the range of radio frequencies that communication devices can use is limited, and satellite operators are constantly battling for access to specific radio frequency bands to communicate with. es different technologies. But that's a stretch of the spectrum that's already allocated for mobile devices, and Miller says their satellites will simply communicate within that band.
That's what UbiquitiLink tests with the recent payload that was sent to the ISS. "We are in the process of proving with our test satellites that we can share spectrum that is already in the phone that is for agriculture for space and that it will not cause harmful interference," says Miller. Astronauts aboard the ISS are tasked with adding the payload to the UbiquitiLink test inside a Cygnus cargo capsule, which has been docked with the station since April. Next week, the capsule will leave the space station, and that's when UbiquitiLinks testing will begin. First they will test 2G and then LTE from space.
This will be the company's second space test. The team launches a third test payload in December and a couple next spring. If testing goes well, UbiquitiLink will start registering customers and raising more money in addition to the $ 12 million they raised to make these demonstration flights. The goal is to create a fleet of spacecraft weighing only 25 kilos. Between 24 and 36 spacecraft can provide hourly coverage over a large swath of the earth, according to the company. But to truly provide global coverage, UbiquitiLink will petition the Federal Communications Commission to set up thousands of satellites, just as SpaceX, Amazon and OneWeb will do.