It is very possible that in the next few years you, dear reader, will end up using the services of Sateliot, a Catalan startup, although you may not even be aware of it. It will happen when you try to use your mobile phone in a remote place, until then without coverage, but magically you already have it despite not seeing a single antenna for many kilometers around. And it will be thanks to the fact that your operator, at some point in this decade, will have announced voice and data coverage in 100% of Spanish territory thanks to an agreement with this startup, which plans to offer roaming satellite directly to the telcos (and not only to the telcos) thanks to its low orbit constellation.
This startup, created at the end of 2018 by former Eurona employees who wanted to take advantage of the knowledge accumulated in the satellite telecommunications sector, is oriented towards business with other companies, although its impact can also reach the final consumer. Its name is already a declaration of intent: ‘satellite’… plus ‘IoT’ (Internet of Things, Internet of Things), in reference to its main commercial objective: the connectivity of small objects. Wherever they are.
Its birth did not happen by chance, but taking advantage of the fact that for the first time, a mobile standard, 5G, was defined with an extension to space. In other words, 5G is also designed to connect you by satellite, not just by terrestrial antennas. Low-orbit satellites can support their coverage, and Sateliot decided to enter that, taking advantage of a Perfect storm: the first mobile standard with satellite possibility, a valid technology for this purpose, a mobile industry on which to add a non-terrestrial part, and affordable launchers to send these satellites into space.
Satellite coverage is not intended to be used within cities. Satellites are very good in coverage, but poor in capacity, unlike mobile antennas, especially those of the most recent generations. While with 2G five cells were used to cover a large city completely, the move to 3G multiplied the necessary antennas by a hundred. The jump to 4G again multiplied them by ten. And with 5G there will also be growth to make them better in dense areas. For non-dense areas is where the satellite comes into play. Specifically, the constellation 500 kilometers away from Earth, as opposed to the 36,000 kilometers that traditional satellites orbit.
These launches are possible today, but a few years ago they were not feasible. If they are now, it is because there are those mentioned affordable pitcherslike Soyuz or SpaceX, which sell their excess cargo to companies like Sateliot. Before, that surplus (let’s say, 300 kilos left free from 1,800 kilo capacity launches) was filled with weights, since there was no point in recalculating loads and distributions for different weigh-ins.
A 5G standard that opens up the possibility of satellite connectivity and affordable satellite launches of surplus rocket payloads, the combination that has made such an initiative possible
Now it is common to sell that remaining space. They are even programmable satellites: when you pass over a high capacity antenna it is possible to update your radio, like a software update. The company looks at what launches are made in the month it is interested in, and determines who offers the best price and probability of success. Sateliot’s first satellite was launched from Baikonur (Kazakhstan) aboard a Soyuz.
“The satellite behaves like a base station that connects directly with the equipment”, explains Jaume Sanpera, CEO of Sateliot. “From the bases to the ground, everything is proprietary technology. But on the ground there is a core the same as that of mobile operators. That way, operators can connect to it by doing roaming. Exactly the same as when you go to France, and even if you are from Movistar, you can get a connection thanks to Orange France; a client of an operator will be able to use our connectivity if his operator contracts our roaming”. An idea that will be viable, according to the planned launches, towards the middle of the decade, and for which there are already open conversations.
Definition of “in real time”
Nevertheless, the roaming business of operators for private customers is not the main objective of Sateliot, which puts the Internet of Things business first in several areas. For example, the agricultural one, which by its very nature does not require such a continuous connection. This is where the definition of coverage “in real time” comes into play depending on the sector you are targeting.
A single satellite already provides global coverage… but only twice a day at a specific point on the planet. As satellites and orbital planes are added, the time between the arrival of one satellite and the appearance of the next decreases.
A particular user requires continued connectivity, but uses of the Internet of Things, such as agriculture or livestock, have a different definition of “real time”, and it can be more than enough with four connections a day. Those necessary to send messages with the update of the status of a crop, rainfall or the movement of livestock. Information that can increase yield “up to between 20% and 40% in the form of reduced consumption of water, fertilizers, etc,” according to Sanpera.
One of Sateliot’s first practical cases, although demonstrative, not commercial, is that of a highway that crosses New Mexico and is equipped with sensors that detect large sandstorms. After a certain level, these sensors send a satellite signal that indicates if the limit that leads to the road closure has been reached.
These uses, as well as maritime logistics (which Sateliot encrypts in a message every two hours to record the position), will be the first to be marketed over the next few months, when the second satellite will be launched. The idea is to have the first commercial constellation in 2023, and 256 satellites in 2025. That is, according to the company, “what we call near real time.” Later, the goal is to reach 500 satellites a few years later. Then it will be feasible to provide global connectivity to operator clients, since there will be sufficient stability to provide a signal to the entire planet simultaneously.
Asked Sanpera about what prevents operators from developing their own satellite networks and avoiding paying an extra cost to an intermediary, he replies that “the first thing is that their shareholders prevent them from doing so.” And we remember how lately some operators have even been pressured to sell their own telecom towers. Towers that serve entirely for their national businesses. Satellites, global by definition, make less sense for operators who, in the best of cases, work in a few countries.
“The world’s leading operator by billing is Verizon, which is only in the United States. Its market share is 5% worldwide. They would not need satellite coverage that they would be continually wasting,” explains the CEO. “We are in contact with sixty operators around the world and none have told us that they are not interested in this or that they have already solved it. We will give them global coverage and they will have to face zero euros of initial investment.”
After the zero euros of initial investment, the payments of the monthly invoices would arrive, which Sanpera figures in a few euros, or less than one euro, something typical of object connectivity, where the price per “client” is much lower than that of private voice and data lines and it is played with a large scale to be able to do business. Starlink, the opposite example, does target end customers with monthly bills of 100 euros and 500 euros of initial equipment cost, and yet everything is sold at a loss, since its cost is much higher, in order to gain a customer base to make profitable with monthly bills.
In 2021 they billed half a million euros for pilot projects. “We charge them despite being pilots because we like commitment, and that means paying a few minimum hours to make sure that the other party is really interested in our activity,” explains Sanpera. By 2022 they plan to reach 15 million euros. By 2025, 1,000 million euros invoiced.
At the beginning of this year they closed a capital increase for ten million euros, among whose participants are two heavyweights in the sector such as Cellnex and Indra, infrastructure operator and technological partner respectively. The latter, also in view of being able to reach certain strategic sectors where it is much easier to enter if it is from the hand of an established actor.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism