How The Ebola Crisis In Africa Inspired The World’s Next Big Satellite Constellation

A U.S satellite communications startup, UbiquitiLink, is on the verge of launching the “next big thing” in the global ComSat constellation race. The Virginia-based startup, headed by Charles Miller – a former NASA commercial space advisor and NanoRacks co-founder – plans to launch a constellation of satellites that will serve as cell towers in low Earth orbit to extend the reach of terrestrial mobile networks.

UbiquitiLink launched its test payload in February to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a Northrop Grumman Cygnus launch vehicle. While on-board the ISS, astronauts attached the payload to the nose of a Cygnus capsule to experiment a two-way 2G connection between a ground-based cellphone and the ISS-bound satellite payload. The experiment lasted for five days aboard the Cygnus, before burning up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Following the launch of the company’s precursor satellite aboard SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to the ISS last week, UbiquitiLink is set to carry out more extensive testing this month with its precursor payload attached to another Cygnus. If a more extensive test with its precursor satellite turns successful, UbiquitiLink plans to launch a mega-constellation of “space towers” in low Earth orbit with an operational timeline of 2021.

In a recent interview with The Verge, 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 via BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network) transmissions, which quickly ate up data. Deckard then posed the question on whether or not a satellite could connect directly to a phone.

“I looked down, and I go, ‘why not?’”, said Miller.

Miller said the idea received a mixed reaction of validation and scepticism from his friends and NASA scientists.

“After my guys came back and told me they’d done this, I said, ‘well let’s go validate it.’ We went to NASA and JPL and asked what they thought. Everybody’s gut reaction was ‘well, this won’t work,’ but then afterwards they just said ‘well, it works,’” he told TechCrunch in a separate interview.

During a media briefing at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Ubiquitilink claimed that it had made a breakthrough with its technology and delivery model. The bottom line explanation to the company’s model is that its proposed mega constellation of satellites in orbit (acting as cell towers) could provide a low-bandwidth connection to any phone manufactured in the past decade. The satellites will orbit the Earth around 500km at an altitude of 310 miles, and deliver narrow RF beam transmissions to cellphones on Earth.

According to Miller, the company has already signed up 18 telecommunications with a subscriber base of about 1 billion across 52 countries, for its experimental launches and commercial pilot.