UbiquitiLink demos “cell tower in space”

At Mobile World Congress 2019, UbiquitiLink announced a successful demonstration of a standard cell phone communicating with a low earth orbit (LEO) satellite.  The company says it has secured agreements with 18 mobile operators offering service in 53 different companies for the use of its technology to enable widescale roaming outside of standard cell tower services by using satellites flying 500 kilometers overhead as an alternative.

 “We have done what many people thought was impossible,” CEO Charles Miller told Mobile World Daily at Mobile World Congress 2019, with the technology working with any 3GPP standard device from simple 2G phones to the latest smartphones. “We are testing 2G now from orbit and we will test LTE later this year with our second launch. Our cell towers in space will be designed to change frequencies and protocols as they travel over different countries,” said Miller. “Our MNO partners in each country will choose the frequency and the protocol.”

UbiqitiLink conducted an initial demonstration using the NG-10 Cygnus space station supply vehicle, with an initial payload bolted onto the hatch of the spacecraft while it was at the space station. Testing started roughly upon the vehicle release from the station in mid-February 2019 as it was deploying small satellites until it re-entered the atmosphere for disposal on February 25.

Operators using the UbiquitiLink service will pay a “wholesale” price for service use and will likely charge a premium for what the company is billing as a “global shared roaming” service.  UbiquitiLink also promises an emergency free texting messaging service as well as free communications for first responders after a disaster.

Existing cell phone technology has a reception limit of less than 30 kilometers, according to UbiquitiLink, taking into account radio frequencies, timing, doppler shift, and the curve of the earth.  Reaching a satellite overhead is simpler in some respects because it’s a straight line between a satellite overhead and a cell phone, with no terrain in the way.  UbiquitiLink modifies the standard cellular software stack, loosening the 30 kilometer limit to enable communications with a satellite configured and operating as a cell tower with the same constraints removed.  Since cell phones pick the strongest tower to lock onto, users should experience a somewhat seamless transfer between terrestrial service and satellite when they come back into range of ground networks.

A single UbiquitiLink satellite might provide around 5 minutes of coverage every 10 to 12 hours per day, providing time for quick text messaging or IoT applications.  While the company has emphasized text messaging, an obvious/”killer” application would be as an extension of 4G/5G IoT networks.  Low-power, low-bandwidth 4G/5G IoT devices operating with a (patented) UbiquitiLink software stack would be able to be incorporated into a “stock” wireless IoT network without having to resort to a more customized solution using different satellite technology for communications. 

So far UbiquitiLink has raised $6.5 million and is in the process of another round of $30 million to build and launch a free-flying demonstration satellite capable of working with 4G LTE phones, but it has larger service ambitions which will require much more cash. .

UbiquitiLink hopes to have between 24 to 36 satellites in orbit by 2021, enabling users to get some coverage every hour for a large swath of the planet between 55 degrees north and south latitudes.  A constellation of “several thousand” satellites will be needed to provide continuous coverage with a goal to have service up by 2023.

Exactly how much money would be necessary to launch satellites in quantity is unclear, but there are some suggestions it won’t be as expensive as one might think.  The satellites would be using modified off-the-shelf cellular software rather than from-scratch code and there are various open source designs to build cell towers that could be modified for and integrated with a satellite.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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