The future of satellite internet may rely on tech already found in your TV screen. LCD manufacturers are providing solutions for tracking fast-moving satellites to provide internet coverage around the world.
Kymeta, a Redmond-based satellite antenna company backed by Bill Gates, announced today a partnership with display manufacturer Sharp to produce antennas using Kymeta’s metamaterial-based technology called mTenna.
Kymeta’s satellite receivers have always been based on liquid crystal technology. For the past three years, the company has worked with Sharp, a massive liquid-crystal display (LCD) manufacturer, to understand the liquid crystal manufacturing processes.
Today’s partnership builds on that relationship, using Sharp’s existing flat-panel display production lines to manufacture antennas that electronically track passing satellites.
“From day one, we knew we wanted to leverage the liquid-crystal display industry. And if I’m candid, we just didn’t know how,” Kymeta CEO Nathan Kundtz said.
Kymeta, which spun out of Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures, was formed to take advantage of the vast, unused satellite spectrum to provide internet around the world. Just 3 percent of the current wireless spectrum sold for $36 billion last year.
“There’s very few services that can pony up that kind of cash,” Kundtz said. “Satellite literally has 1,000 times more spectrum available to it and it’s available on a global basis, naturally, because it’s in space.”
The challenge for Kymeta was tracking those satellites, which move quickly across the sky. Existing solutions relied on bulky, physically moving dishes that can take a long time to transfer to a new satellite when the current one gets out of range.
But Kymeta’s solution uses metamaterials to electronically shift its antennas toward satellites without any movement the user would notice, making for much quicker transfers and reducing the weight and bulk of the final product.
The partnership with Sharp will result in a range of mTenna devices, but they won’t be going to consumers’ hands just yet. Like Sony building camera sensors for the iPhone, Sharp is just focusing on building the antennas for now.
The first round of production models will be tested, ensuring the manufacturing process will work at the scale Kymeta is expecting. Then, the antennas will be sent to a range of manufacturers who will develop commercial and consumer products that use the antennas.
Kundtz, an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering at Duke University, compares their business model to that of Qualcomm. Qualcomm designs the chips that chip foundries build and sell to device manufacturers. Kymeta invented the tech, Sharp is producing the antenna, and other companies will be able to include the antenna in their final product, whether it be for mobile homes or backpackers in the wilderness. However, it might take a while before the average consumer can afford a mTenna.
“We’re going to start with commercial relationships, but that being said with the volumes that we’re already receiving purchase orders will eclipse the existing market,” Kundtz said. “The prices aren’t going to begin at the consumer level, but they’re being manufactured in a way that we can expand into those spaces as we see fit.”
Kundtz expects the first commercially available mTenna products to be available late next year, with service contracts available with satellite carriers like Intelsat, which Kymeta partnered with earlier this year.