SpaceX launch launches startup’s plan for ‘cell towers in space’

With a SpaceX rocket launch scheduled for Monday evening, a Spanish company called Sateliot expects to take its first step to bring you text messaging capabilities in remote parts of the world where conventional mobile networks fail.

The 50-employee Barcelona-based startup is one of a growing number of attempts to use satellites some 310 miles above our heads in low Earth orbit to bring us closer to the promise of ubiquitous connectivity. With Apple, Verizon, T-Mobile and Qualcomm all moving in the same direction, it seems likely that in the near future stranded motorists and injured hikers won’t be so isolated.

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The launch of Sateliot, from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, is expected to put the first of five satellites into orbit this year, enough to launch the first phase of Sateliot’s activities. Next year, the company plans to have 64 satellites in orbit, then 256 satellites in 2025. That will be enough to enable text conversations, he said.

“We are the cellular tower in space for mobile operators,” Sateliot CEO Jaume Sanpera said in an exclusive interview. “These are small satellites – nano-satellites – that allow us to have near real-time coverage everywhere in three years.”

Sateliot is not the only one with the ambition to use data links that cross the skies. Here are some of the other players:

With Sateliot’s technology, you’ll never know you’re using their service. Your phone will simply connect to its satellites through carrier partnerships.

While the company’s longer-term plan is to help consumers, that’s not where it begins. Instead, with its constellation of five satellites this year, it plans to connect businesses in areas such as logistics and shipping, Sanpera said. It has signed three agreements worth a total of around $1.1 billion to enable such services.

Each satellite can communicate with a portion of Earth about three times the size of Texas as it passes overhead. With the initial small constellation, Sateliot can guarantee a satellite connection once a day. Because the device on the planet knows when the satellites will be overhead, it can wake up to communicate and spend the rest of its hours sleeping in a low power state. This means the batteries will last for years.

Some communications satellites are huge, like a bus-sized Hughes communications satellite which SpaceX is expected to launch in the coming weeks, but Sateliot’s early models are much smaller: around 4 x 8 x 12 inches, or about the size of a large cereal box called Cubesat 6 units or 6U. Next year’s satellites will be double the thickness, with a 12U design.

Thanks to the miniaturization of electronics, however, these small systems can be powerful. And that’s why there’s something of a new space race going on, this time between tech companies instead of political superpowers.

“People want to have messages everywhere,” Sanpera said.

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