Unlocking Satellite Internet Capacity for the Whole World
Solving Earth’s Challenges in Space
At MaC we often say many of Earth’s challenges can or will only be solved in space. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the challenge of connecting half of the world’s population that currently cannot access the internet. Four billion people don’t have the required information needed for them to make their best decisions when it comes to education, job opportunities, and healthcare to name a few. This lack of access will in turn reduce the chances of living a productive and prosperous life. The World Wide Web launched nearly 30 years ago yet we still have only half the global population online, and worse, the rate of adoption has been on the decline for a decade.
While there are several reasons for this lack of adoption, including illiteracy, lack of digital skills and price, connectivity and service availability are major contributing factors. There are three main ways by which broadband internet service can be delivered to users:
- Ground: Ground-based networks are created with physical cables such as those used by cable service networks (cable network), telephone networks (digital subscriber line or DSL), fiber optic cables (fiber network), or wireless communication transmitted by towers (long term evolution or LTE). Most people today receive internet through one or more of these ground-based networks. Extending these strategies to other parts of the world can be difficult. Many communities don’t have anyone to put up enough capital to build the necessary infrastructure. The problem becomes worse in low-density communities where the cost per user drastically increases.
- Air: It was believed that air-based strategies like stratosphere flying balloons or drones could more effectively serve internet access to remote locations. Failed projects like Google’s Loon and Facebook’s Aquila tried this approach and faced logistical and economic challenges that could not be solved.
- Space: A space-based strategy involves connecting the entire planet with singular satellite-based networks, often called constellations. These constellations are made up of dozens to up to thousands of satellites flying above the earth and beaming the internet down to the planet. Most of these constellations fly in low Earth orbit (also known as LEO, which is the space between 100 miles and 1,200 miles above the surface of the Earth), but some are also positioned in geosynchronous Earth orbit (also known as GEO, which is the space that exists about 22,000 miles above the surface of the Earth). LEO is easier and less expensive to reach but requires more satellites for true global coverage, while GEO is harder and more expensive to reach but requires fewer satellites. The best known space-based constellation companies are SpaceX’s Starlink, OneWeb, ViaSat, Intelsat, Astranis and Amazon’s forthcoming Project Kuiper.
Space seems to be the solution to solve this global connectivity challenge. Falling lunch costs (rockets have to take the satellites into orbit) coupled with advances in satellite technology and economies of scale that have made satellites cheaper to produce as well as smaller in size, have turned space into the most technically feasible solution and also the most economical.
The image below shows the simplified way data is transported from the source of a signal to an end-user via satellites. For this type of (space) system to work, there has to be an antennae/user terminal on the ground here on earth to receive the signal from the satellite up in space.
While many companies are solving the challenges associated with launching and manufacturing the satellites themselves, the other part of the equation, i.e. the user side, has not seen the same rate of technological innovation over the last few decades. User terminal is the term used to refer to various types of equipment required by the user in order to connect to a satellite and send/receive the data satellites are distributing across the globe. In this context, a user may be an individual at home anywhere in the world, a business or enterprise in need of a fast internet connection, or a moving platform like a car, airplane, or a ship in need of uninterrupted connectivity.
User terminals always involve some kind of antenna. Most people are familiar with the DirectTV satellite dish that hangs out of building windows or sits on rooftops. A satellite dish is a form of antenna known as a parabolic antenna. But there are other types of antennas, including flat panel antennas (FPA) that are designed to be lightweight, easy to install, and durable for years of reliable service. FPAs have long been a niche alternative to parabolic systems, due to high costs and variable performance-limiting market potential, however, more recently the industry has taken a strong interest in FPAs. This is due in part because of the need for more portable and affordable antennas. To deliver internet access to moving vehicles (planes, trains, automobiles and boats), it is not feasible to have a large, DirectTV-type parabolic dish sitting up top. FPAs can be placed on transportation vehicles without reducing aerodynamics.
As new high-tech satellite antennas start hitting the market, several satellite operators have expressed concern that existing and future antennas won’t meet their needs. Fleet operators agreed that satellite antennas are often the weak point in the business case for satellite broadband, lagging behind other technologies and costing more than customers want to spend. Many said they hope flat panel antennas, which can track multiple satellites simultaneously and fit on more surfaces than traditional dish antennas, will succeed, but aren’t hanging hopes on their success.
To achieve the true promise of a space-based system delivering the world’s information to the entire world, a better ground-based solution is desperately needed.
UTVATE: Unlocking Satellite Internet Capacity for the Whole World
Today we are very excited to announce our investment into UTVATE, a company building the next generation of user terminals that can unlock the true capacity of satellite internet. UTVATE has been operating in stealth since they graduated from YC’s Winter 2020 batch. UTVATE’s mission is to help create a world in which every person can access the information they need in order to live a prosperous life. At MaC, we are driven by companies that are gap-narrowing and we feel near-perfect alignment between that goal and what UTVATE will accomplish in success.
UTVATE was founded in 2019 by former SpaceX and Astranis Engineer, Siamak Ebadi. After both seeing and building existing solutions, Siamak saw a gap in attention being paid to what is needed on the ground to deploy the internet to over four billion people. He left Astranis to solve a problem he saw first-hand at Astranis and SpaceX. And Siamak has recruited a world-class group of engineering and operational talent to help him grow this business.
We are excited to be joining an amazing investor group that includes Y Combinator, Fifty Years, Quiet Capital, Liquid2 Ventures, Garage Capital, Soma Capital, Hack VC, and angels John Gedmark, Annie Hu, Chris Golda, Robin Vasan, Beth Turner, Josh Buckley, Immad Akhund, Jude Gomila and Alan Rutledge.
Adrian Fenty led the UTVATE Series Seed round for MaC Venture Capital.
About MaC Venture Capital
MaC Venture Capital is a seed-stage venture capital firm that invests in technology startups leveraging shifts in cultural trends and behaviors. Our diverse backgrounds in technology, business, government, entertainment, and finance allow us to accelerate entrepreneurs on the verge of their breakthrough moment. We provide hands-on support crucial for building and scaling category-leading companies, including operations strategy, brand building, recruiting, and mission-critical introductions. At MaC, our mission is to invest in visionary founders building the future we want to see.