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Lynk Co-Founder Says Satellite-to-Cell Tech Will Be ‘Bigger than 5G’

By Rachel Jewett | March 30, 2020

The nanosatellite Lynk calls its “cell tower in space.” Photo: Lynk

Startup Lynk Global recently hit a Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) milestone by sending a message from a satellite directly to a cell phone on Earth — and one of the company’s co-founders says the implications of this technology will surpass 5G. 

Lynk’s goal is to provide text messaging via LEO nanosatellites that connect directly to unmodified mobile phones. Lynk co-founder and CEO Charles Miller said the company will bring connectivity to the 90% of the earth’s surface that is outside the bounds of terrestrial wireless, and predicts it will be a bigger achievement than the “incremental” advance of 5G. 

“Going from zero to anything — it is transformational for the rest of the planet. People will pay for that,” said Miller, who also co-founded Nanoracks and is a former NASA senior advisor for commercial space. “What we’re doing is a bigger deal than 5G.” 

Miller cast his team’s LEO achievement as something separate from other LEO ventures like SpaceX’s Starlink. He said Lynk is inventing a new category which he calls “satellite front haul,” because it is transmitted direct to phone, instead of WiFi to a fixed antenna at a specific site. Instead of growing the satellite industry, Miller said this company expands the mobile wireless industry, which he said could be a $300 billion to $400 billion opportunity over the long-term. 

“[When] you walk out of the Wi-Fi set coverage, you’re gonna roam onto our network and we’ll provide coverage,” he said. “We’re not going to be as fast as any of the other guys. But we fill in all the black spots. So we’re a completely different category of service.” 

“It’s not about space — just space happens to be the way we do it,” Miller added. 

Technology That ‘Tricks’ the Cellphone

The Falls Church, Virginia-based company recently announced that on Feb. 24, it successfully connected a satellite in LEO to a mobile phone on Earth, and has sent a text message from space to a mobile phone, calling it the first development of its kind.

Lynk, formerly UbiquitiLink, calls its satellites “cell towers in space.” The company has four satellites in-orbit after its most recent launch on SpaceX’s CRS-20 mission on March 6. The company plans to expand testing with this spacecraft, called Lynk The World, this coming summer. 

Lynk’s solution is to lower the altitude of their satellites, narrow the slant range with a higher gain antenna, and operate in the sub-1 GHz spectrum allocated for mobile phone wireless users.

The hard part, Miller said, was figuring out how to make the connection without additional hardware on the phone. The solution, which co-founder and Vice President of Technology & Strategy Tyghe Speidel patented in March 2017, takes the standard software stack in the cell tower and puts it in the satellite, which solves most of the software needs. Then, the satellite compensates for the doppler shift that would break the link with the phone by “tricking” the phone into thinking the satellite is closer than it is. 

At first, Miller said, even Speidel thought the technology was impossible to achieve, but they realized that  “most engineers hadn’t done the bottoms-up fundamental physics of the link budget between a phone and a satellite.” 

“Our technology basically takes the satellite and turns it into a standard ordinary cell tower from the perspective of everybody’s phone in their pocket, the mobile phone they love and take with them everywhere,” Miller said. “Our satellite in orbit looks like a cell tower to them, smells like a cell tower and sounds like a cell tower, and they and they operate with it like a cell tower. 

Lynk’s MNO Market Strategy

Lynk’s near-term goal is to have 30 to 40 satellites up in order to provide what Miller calls “periodic commercial service.” At that point, a rancher working outside in remote Montana with no connectivity, for example, could send and receive text messages about once an hour, when a satellite passes overhead. 

The technology was developed in response to the Ebola crisis in Africa, when the third co-founder Margo Deckard realized that aid workers were using donated satellite terminals primarily for text messaging. Deckard, who is now COO, saw the value that could be provided if phones were able to connect directly to satellites.

Lynk announced its milestone in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic and, although Miller said the company will not be operational to have an impact on the current crisis, he sees the technology having enormous impact on emergency response 

“We are ubiquitous backup, resilient, networking for emergency responders,” Miller said. “If you’re dealing with COVID, or Ebola in remote areas, we will enable you to stay connected to emergency responders. Down the road once we’re in service, we will be part of a fully integrated emergency response service.” 

Miller said Lynk wants to offer an emergency messaging service, but does not want to profit off of it. Instead, Lynk’s strategy as it gains regulatory approval and landing rights in countries around the world, is to partner with Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) as roaming partners, and offer the emergency message service for free in the countries in which it operates.

The company reports it is in collaboration with around 30 MNOs. It is testing under Cellular One’s spectrum license, according to its Special Temporary Authority (STA) application, filed with the FCC in 2018. In addition, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2019 that Vodafone Hutchison Australia is a test partner. 

“Satellite companies and mobile operators are in a position where they’re constantly fighting, but we’re going to be the best friend of the mobile network operators,” Miller said. “We’re gonna be a global wholesaler of connectivity services that they get to sell to their subscribers, and they are going to treat us just like a roaming partner.” 

The company counts Steve Case, former CEO of AOL among its investors. Case connected with Lynk through its investor firm Unshackled Ventures, and he invested in Lynk via Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund. Lynk lists Blazar Ventures, RRE Ventures, Avonlea Capital and One Way Ventures among its other investors. 

“His background as the former CEO of AOL .. was connecting the world. So we’re kind of carrying on Steve’s mission to connect the world,” Miller said. 

Lynk plans to build and launch hardware about every six months as funding allows. Miller said at this point, how fast the company can enter commercial service comes down to how much money the company can raise, and how fast it can build satellites. 

Miller said that with regulatory approval, Lynk plans for the satellites it launches this coming fall to provide initial commercial service, and global emergency response services as well. 

“We think, because of the indisputable existence proof of what we’ve done providing a global emergency response service, that regulators are going to want this sooner rather than later because we can save lives,” Miller said.