There are now three major would-be mega-constellation low Earth orbit satellite developers: Elon Musk’s Starlink, Jeff Bezos’ Project Kuiper and the UK/India joint-venture OneWeb (should it emerge from bankruptcy). The missing link for each of them is a very low-cost phased array antenna to bring satellite broadband to the mass market.
Which is perhaps where Bill Gates comes in.
Gates has just invested $78.5 million into antenna specialists Kymeta Corp, which has attracted $85.2 million in a fresh cash-raising exercise.
The company’s core products are “electronically steered” flat-plate satellite antennas, built to replace the well-established geostationary fixed dish technology and which can also track the very fast moving low Earth satellites that could come from the likes of Musk, Bezos and OneWeb.
Other investors in Kymeta include Liberty Global, Intelsat and Lux Capital. Kymeta has raised some $300 million since its founding in 2012.
Kymeta’s key product is its u8 terminal, which will begin ‘beta’ testing about now and is aimed at coming to market by the end of the year. This is not a consumer product, and is primarily designed for vehicle use by military, trains, fire and ambulance services and buses.
Redmond, Washington State-based Kymeta – and just a few miles from Elon Musk’s base – first attracted Bill Gates in 2016 as a lead investor since its initial funding. But the challenges are considerable. The average price for a Kymeta mobile broadband terminal is a pricy $23,000 and they are frequently found in military deployments or with satellite operators such as Inmarsat (on their Swift series of aircraft-based units) or Thales on their TopFlight Satcom aircraft devices.
Whether Kymeta can bring down the cost to mass-market levels is still to be seen. Gates is, in essence, backing his former colleague Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures business, which was an early investor in Kymeta.
Kymeta recognises there’s still much to do, and says it wants to scale up its current manufacturing capacity to “tens of thousands” of terminals annually. The end result might not benefit consumers and in particular the new low-Earth orbiting satellites from Musk and Co.
Indeed, the involvement of India’s Bharti (in OneWeb) might be the very catalyst Musk and Co might be looking for. Either way, the cost of consumer terminals has to fall significantly for the new breed to low Earth orbiting satellites to have an impact on home users of satellite-based broadband. Time will tell whether the likes of Musk or Bezos can involve themselves and see the current cost of flat-plate antennas come tumbling down to consumer-affordable levels.
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