6 Technologies for Enabling Global Internet
We recently reviewed the portfolio in ARK’s new space-themed ETF and found the list lacking. We’ve been similarly disappointed in other ETFs that claim to offer investors exposure to a big basket of space stocks but turn out to be just the usual collection of technology stocks. We’ve only been able to find one space stock to invest in. That’s one reason why we’re eagerly awaiting the decision by SpaceX to spin-off its global internet constellation Starlink into a publicly traded business. The company, led by former SNL comedian Elon Musk, boosted 52 more satellites into orbit last week. Full commercial service is expected to begin before the end of the year.
While there are a number of companies racing to offer global internet, SpaceX is the obvious leader and there’s little to suggest that will change anytime soon. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other opportunities to make a buck in this rapidly expanding sector of the space economy. After all, Starlink is mainly focused (at the moment) on providing broadband internet to rural and remote places. Other providers, for example, see opportunities in connecting sensors and satellites for the Internet of Things (IoT) and tracking everything from space. Satellites are certainly sexy, but there’s a lot more to providing global internet services to the masses. We’re talking infrastructure like ground stations or components like antennas.
Venture capital and market research firm SpaceFund has posted a database of startups developing what it calls Beyond Earth Orbit Communication. Ostensibly, these companies are creating the technologies that will enable Musk to phone home from Mars. In reality, many of these technologies could become the backbone of the next-generation of global internet communications right here on the mother planet. We filtered through the list to bring you six startups that are working on some of the most interesting technologies. We only included companies that have raised at least $1 million in funding.
Tuning Into Global Internet
The proliferation of satellite constellations for global internet and other types of communication represents an opportunity for a company that could develop a ground terminal capable of linking to all of these different systems. That’s the technology behind London-based Isotropic Systems. Founded in 2013, the startup has raised $60 million in disclosed funding. Its most recent round was a $40 million Series B in February led by SES (SESG.PA), a satellite and terrestrial telecommunications network provider (and customer) out of Luxembourg with a market cap of about $4.45 billion. Other investors include Boeing (BA) and the UK Space Agency. The new infusion of cash should help the company commercialize its multi-beam antenna, which uses radio frequency optics technology to link with multiple satellites in multiple orbits.
What that means is that the company’s hardware will enable clients to connect to existing old-school satellites like those operated by Inmarsat and all of the new constellations, including Starlink, Amazon’s Kuiper satellite constellation, Telesat Lightspeed, and more. For instance, remote research stations in the extremes of Antarctica could lock on to whatever satellite was available to beam back images of secret Nazi bases. SES, in particular, is interested in the technology and has partnered with Isotropic Systems on potential government work, including for the U.S. Army. How else can troops live tweet their latest location?
Meanwhile, Austin, Texas-based CesiumAstro is developing phased-array antenna systems to fly on satellites and other aircraft. Founded in 2017 by a guy who has been trying to bring this technology to fruition for decades, the startup has raised $28.2 million in disclosed funding, including a round of debt financing last year to the tune of $14 million. A $12.4 million Series A in 2019 included some pretty impressive names, like Franklin Templeton Investments, Honeywell (HON), Airbus (AIR.PA), and Kleiner Perkins. Fixed-beam satellites, as the name implies, only illuminate a fixed location. Phased-arrays systems like the ones being developed by CesiumAstro “turn digital bits into steerable, shapeable radio frequency beams and provide complete communications systems in an easily customizable plug and play kit.” In other words, the system can steer connectivity to where it’s needed, as well as optimize power and bandwidth along the way.
The company claims its systems are an order of magnitude cheaper than the competition. They can be integrated not only into satellites, but unmanned aerial vehicles (i.e, drones) and other platforms. CesiumAstro plans to launch a cubesat mission before the end of the year to prove the technology.
Lighting the Way to Global Internet
A couple years ago, we wrote an article about how the next big thing in WiFi would be LiFi – using light to transmit data rather than radio frequencies. A similar idea is being developed to transfer large amounts of data across satellites, as well as between other assets. Founded in 2012, Cailabs is a French startup that has raised about $20 million to develop laser communication technology, with aerospace and defense giant Safran (SAF.PA) the most prominent investor. Laser communication offers several advantages, such as higher data throughput rates, better data security, and less chance of interference. The last point is particularly important, given large constellations like Starlink are coming online. In fact, SpaceX has designed its satellites with capabilities for laser light data transfer. Cailabs calls its laser communications technology TILBA, and envisions a network that will link satellites, ground stations, aircraft, ships, and other stuff:
All of this is still a work in progress, as space is still a side hustle. Cailabs’ core business for its “light shaping” technology includes local data networks, laser machining, and even underwater communications.
Another company developing optical data transfer technology is Oakland, California-based Skyloom. Founded in 2017, the startup has raised $3.1 million across a couple of Seed rounds. Skyloom proposes placing its satellites in long-distance geostationary orbit to serve as relay stations for low-Earth-orbit (LEO) global internet constellations like Starlink or geospatial constellations such as Planet. The idea is that the geostationary satellite, using laser light technology from its bird’s eye view of the planet, can move massive amounts of data up to 100-fold more quickly back to Mother Earth thanks to its positioning in relation to LEO satellites.
SpaceNews reported that Skyloom is teaming up with Cailabs, though no details on how the collaboration will play out.
Diamonds are for Space
Space is harsh, which limits how efficiently a satellite can do its job. San Francisco-based Akash Systems has invented a new composite material to improve satellite bandwidth for global internet and other applications. Founded in 2016, the startup has raised $17.6 million from more than a dozen investors, including some well-known VC firms like Khosla Ventures and Founders Fund, which also backs SpaceX. Akash Systems produces communications gear that employs a material it calls gallium nitride (GaN)-on-Diamond. (It’s something we talked about before in our piece on Investing in Gallium Nitride and Silicon Carbide.) The synthetic diamond used in the company’s amplifiers and radios is highly thermally conductive, dramatically helping to keep satellite electronics cooler. This higher thermal envelope allows engineers to design smaller, lighter satellites that can support higher bandwidths while also being more energy efficient.
Ground Control to Major Automation
Ground stations are facilities that provide the command and control function for satellite operations, including receiving data. ATLAS Space Operations is attempting to disrupt that sector of the satellite industry through software automation. Founded in 2015, the startup out of Michigan has raised $10 million in disclosed funding. The company is building a network of 30 ground stations that are designed around its Freedom software platform. It automates the entire process of scheduling, receiving status updates, and notifications from satellites, including large constellations for services like global internet. And there’s a spiffy dashboard to boot:
ATLAS works with both commercial and government customers, including NASA and the U.S. military. One of its works-in-progress is ATLAS Links, sort of mobile ground stations with four antenna units that constantly survey the sky for spacecraft signals, using massive computing power, and algorithms that can isolate even weak signals. Like the hardware from Isotropic Systems, Links units can receive data from multiple satellites simultaneously. The company is also working on optical laser technology like Cailabs and Skyloom.
Global internet is finally within reach, but it’s not all about how many satellites you can crowd into outer space. Some of the innovations we have covered here will eventually help boost bandwidth, reduce latency, and make satellite operations simply more efficient and responsive to a diverse range of applications. These technologies are important components to building out these massive constellations, and some might be attractive acquisitions for the bigger global internet players outside of SpaceX, which is already vertically integrated. Just a few years ago, for example, Amazon (AMZN) announced its own network of ground stations that integrated into its cloud services. One could imagine the e-commerce tech giant will be looking for ways to catch up to SpaceX with some ready-made solutions for its own global internet constellation.
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