With a SpaceX rocket launch scheduled for late Friday, a Spanish company called Sateliot expects to take its first step toward spreading text messaging capabilities to mountains, rural areas and other parts of the world where conventional mobile networks fail.
The 50-employee startup, based in Barcelona, is one of a growing number of attempts to use satellites to bring us closer to the promise of ubiquitous connectivity. With Apple, Verizon, T-Mobile and Qualcomm moving in the same direction, it seems likely that stranded drivers and injured tourists won’t be so isolated in the near future.
Satelliot’s launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California is expected to carry the first of five satellites into low Earth orbit about 310 miles above our heads this year, enough to start the first phase of Satelliot’s business. Next year, the company plans to have 64 satellites in orbit, and then 256 satellites in 2025. That will be enough to allow text-messaging conversations, he said.
“We are the cell tower in space for mobile operators,” said Sateliot CEO Jaume Sanpera in an exclusive interview. “These are small satellites – nano satellites – that allow us to have coverage everywhere in near real time in three years.”
Sateliot is not alone in its ambition to use data links that leap across 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, it doesn’t start there. Instead, with its constellation of five satellites this year, it plans to connect companies in areas such as logistics and maritime shipping, Sanpera said. Three deals totaling around $1.1 billion have been signed to provide such services.
Each satellite can communicate with an area of the Earth about three times the size of Texas as it flies overhead. With the small initial constellation, Sateliot can guarantee a satellite link once a day. Because the planet device 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 the bus-sized Hughes communications satellite that SpaceX will launch in the coming weeks, but the first Sateliot models are much smaller: about 4 by 8 by 12 inches, or about the size of a large box of cereal, which is called 6-unit or 6U cubesat. Next year’s satellites will be twice as thick, with a 12U design.
Thanks to the miniaturization of electronics, however, these small systems can be powerful. And so a new space race of sorts is looming, this time among tech companies instead of political superpowers.
“People want to have messages everywhere,” Sanpera said.