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Ubiquitilink connection
UbiquitiLink’s system would allow users of mobile devices to connect using either ground-based or space-based networks. (UbiquitiLink Illustration)

Virginia-based UbiquitiLink says it has raised another $5.2 million in seed funding for a network that aims to provide satellite connectivity for standard mobile devices.

The latest investments from Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund and Blazar Ventures bring UbiquitiLink’s total funding to $12 million. UbiquitiLink says the added cash will accelerate development of the company’s commercial service with a series of five orbital test flights.

In an interview, UbiquitiLink co-founder and CEO Charles Miller said he expects the initial “killer app” will be text messaging.

“Our vision is that never again should somebody die because they have a phone in their pocket but they’re disconnected,” he told GeekWire. “You should always be connected if you want to be. That day will be here soon.”

UbiquitiLink’s satellite-based system would mesh with terrestrial mobile networks to provide LTE (4G) and GSM (2G) connectivity when a mobile device is outside the coverage area for a ground-based telecommunications network. The cost of the satellite service would be folded into the charges from mobile service providers.

Miller said more than 20 mobile operators have already signed testing agreements. Cellular One in Arizona, Telefonica’s MoviStar service in Argentina and Vodafone Hutchison in Australia are among the publicly disclosed partners, he said.

Still more mobile operators are waiting in the wings, Miller said: “They generally say this is the Holy Grail, and they want proof.”

UbiquitiLink’s first “cell tower in space” was sent to the International Space Station last December, installed onto a Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo ship and successfully tested in February after the Cygnus left the station for its free-flying phase.

Cygnus departure
Northrop Grumman’s robotic Cygnus cargo ship pulls away from the International Space Station in February with UbiquitiLink’s test payload installed in its nose. (NASA Photo)

An upgraded version of the payload is due for launch later this month, with testing scheduled to begin next month. If all the tests go well (and if the company attracts additional funding), UbiquitiLink could start launching operational satellites and go commercial by the end of 2020 or in early 2021, Miller said.

Steve Case, who co-founded AOL and is chairman and CEO of Revolution, said “UbiquitiLink’s mission of providing everyone, everywhere with mobile connectivity is well-aligned with the focus of Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund.”

“Revolution is excited to invest in technology that is helping to provide global connectivity and is designed to have a significant economic and social impact in rural and remote areas,” Case said in a news release issued today.

Miller said UbiquitiLink would provide a no-fuss, low-cost option for connectivity off the beaten track.

“We are building this solution for the 88 million Americans who live in rural areas and lose coverage at the edge of town,” he said in today’s news release. “We are also building this solution for the 2.5 billion people in the world who don’t have a mobile phone, many because they are not connected where they live and work.”

Bigger companies — including SpaceX, OneWeb and Amazon — are aiming to provide connectivity at higher transmission speeds, but Miller says the costs for those services will be higher as well.

“They all require you to buy a ground terminal,” Miller told GeekWire. “In our system, your phone in your pocket is the ground terminal. You don’t need another piece of hardware.”

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