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Ubiquitilink advance means every phone is now a satellite phone – TechCrunch

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Last month I wrote about Ubiquitilink, which promised, through undisclosed means, it was on the verge of providing a sort of global satellite-based roaming service. But how, I asked? (Wait, they told me.) Turns out our phones are capable of a lot more than we think: they can reach satellites acting as cell towers in orbit just fine, and the company just proved it.

Utilizing a constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, Ubiquitilink claimed during a briefing at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona that pretty much any phone from the last decade should be able to text and do other low-bandwidth tasks from anywhere, even in the middle of the ocean or deep in the Himalayas. Literally (though eventually) anywhere and any time.

Surely not, I hear you saying. My phone, that can barely get a signal on some blocks of my neighborhood, or in that one corner of the living room, can’t possibly send and receive data from space… can it?

“That’s the great thing — everybody’s instinct indicates that’s the case,” said Ubiquitilink founder Charles Miller. “But if you look at the fundamentals of the RF [radio frequency] link, it’s easier than you think.”

The issue, he explained, isn’t really that the phone lacks power. The limits of reception and wireless networks are defined much more by architecture and geology than plain physics. When an RF transmitter, even a small one, has a clear shot straight up, it can travel very far indeed.

Space towers

It’s not quite as easy as that, however; there are changes that need to be made, just not anything complex or expensive like special satellite antennas or base stations. If you know that modifying the phone is a non-starter, you have to work with the hardware you’ve got. But everything else can be shaped accordingly, Miller said — three things in particular.

  1. Lower the orbit. There are limits to what’s practical as far as the distance involved and the complications it brings. The orbit needs to be under 500 kilometers, or about 310 miles. That’s definitely low — geosynchronous is 10 times higher — but it’s not crazy either. Some of SpaceX’s Starlink communications satellites are aiming for a similar orbit.
  2. Narrow the beam. The low orbit and other limitations mean that a given satellite can only cover a small area at a time. This isn’t just blasting out data like a GPS satellite, or communicating with a specialized ground system like a dish that can reorient itself. So on the ground you’ll be looking at a 45 degree arc, meaning you can use a satellite that’s within a 45-degree-wide cone above you.
  3. Lengthen the wavelength. Here simple physics come into play: generally, the shorter the wavelength, the less transparent the atmosphere is to it. So you want to use bands on the long (lower Hz) side of the radio spectrum to make sure you maximize propagation.

Having adjusted for these things, an ordinary phone can contact and trade information with a satellite with its standard wireless chip and power budget. But there’s one more obstacle, one Ubiquitilink spent a great deal of time figuring out.

Although a phone and satellite can reach one another reliably, a delay and Doppler shift in the signal due to the speeds and distances involved are inescapable. Turns out the software that runs towers and wireless chips isn’t suited for this; the timings built into the code assume the distance will be less than 30 km, since the curvature of the Earth generally prevents transmitting farther than that.

So Ubiquitilink modified the standard wireless stacks to account for this, something Miller said no one else had done.

“After my guys came back and told me they’d done this, I said, ‘well let’s go validate it,’ ” he told me. “We went to NASA and JPL and asked what they thought. Everybody’s gut reaction was ‘well, this won’t work,’ but then afterwards they just said ‘well, it works.’ ”

The theory became a reality earlier this year after Ubiquitilink launched their prototype satellites. They successfully made a two-way 2G connection between an ordinary ground device and the satellite, proving that the signal not only gets there and back, but that its Doppler and delay distortions can be rectified on the fly.

“Our first tests demonstrated that we offset the Doppler shift and time delay. Everything else is leveraging commercial software,” Miller said, though he quickly added: “To be clear, there’s plenty more work to be done, but it isn’t anything that’s new technology. It’s good solid hardcore engineering, building nanosats and that sort of thing.”

Since his previous company was Nanoracks and he’s been in the business for decades, he’s qualified to be confident on this part. It’ll be a lot of work and a lot of money, but they should be launching their first real satellites this summer. (And it’s all patented, he noted.)

Global roaming

The way the business will work is remarkably simple given the complexity of the product. Because the satellites operate on modified but mostly ordinary off-the-shelf software and connect to phones with no modifications necessary, Ubiquitilink will essentially work as a worldwide roaming operator that mobile networks will pay to access. (Disclosure: Verizon, obviously a mobile network, owns TechCrunch, and for all I know will use this tech eventually. It’s not involved with any editorial decisions.)

Normally, if you’re a subscriber of network X, and you’re visiting a country where X has no coverage, X will have an agreement with network Y, which connects you for a fee. There are hundreds of these deals in play at any given time, and Ubiquitilink would just be one more — except its coverage will eventually be global. Maybe you can’t reach X or Y; you’ll always be able to reach U.

The speeds and services available will depend on what mobile networks want. Not everyone wants or needs the same thing, of course, and a 3G fallback might be practical where an LTE connection is less so. But the common denominator will be data enough to send and receive text at the least.

It’s worth noting also that this connection will be in some crucial ways indistinguishable from other connections: it won’t affect encryption, for instance.

This will of course necessitate at least a thousand satellites, by Miller’s count. But in the meantime, limited service will also be available in the form of timed passes — you’ll have no signal for 55 minutes, then signal for five, during which you can send and receive what may be a critical text or location. This is envisioned as a specialty service at first, then as more satellites join the constellation, that window expands until it’s 24/7 and across the whole face of the planet, and it becomes a normal consumer good.

Emergency fallback

While your network provider will probably charge you the usual arm and leg for global roaming on demand (it’s their prerogative), there are some services Ubiquitilink will provide for free; the value of a global communication system is not lost on Miller.

“Nobody should ever die because the phone in their pocket doesn’t have signal,” he said. “If you break down in the middle of Death Valley you should be able to text 911. Our vision is this is a universal service for emergency responders and global E-911 texting. We’re not going to charge for that.”

An emergency broadcast system when networks are down is also being planned — power outages following disasters are times when people are likely to panic or be struck by a follow-up disaster like a tsunami or flooding, and reliable communications at those times could save thousands and vastly improve recovery efforts.

“We don’t want to make money off saving people’s lives, that’s just a benefit of implementing this system, and the way it should be,” Miller said.

It’s a whole lot of promises, but the team and the tech seem capable of backing them up. Initial testing is complete and birds are in the air — now it’s a matter of launching the next thousand or so.

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GasBuddy tops the App Store for the first time due to Colonial Pipeline attack – TechCrunch

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The GasBuddy mobile app, which typically helps consumers find the cheapest gas nearby, has now become the No. 1 app on the U.S. App Store for the first time ever, due to the fuel shortages in the U.S. that followed the cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline. Americans, fearful that gas would become unavailable, began panic-buying in ways that haven’t been seen since the great toilet paper outage of 2020. As a result, thousands of gas stations ran out of fuel entirely. This dramatic situation has greatly benefitted the GasBuddy app, which includes a crowdsourced feature that helps users locate which local stations still have gas for sale.

As of Wednesday afternoon, GasBuddy says the effects of the Colonial Pipeline shutdown are being felt across 11 U.S. states, largely in the Southeast and Washington, D.C. North Carolina had the highest number of gas stations with fuel outages, with 65% of stations reportedly out of gas as of 2:48 p.m. ET on Wednesday. Kentucky has the lowest at only 2%. Because this data is self-reported by GasBuddy users, it may not represent the most current information, we should note.

Image Credits: GasBuddy app screenshot

During the week, consumers have been turning to GasBuddy to help them find where they can fill up. Yesterday, the app hit No. 1 in the “Travel” category on the App Store, while it steadily climbed its way up the App Store’s Top Overall charts.

This afternoon, GasBuddy became both the No.1 app in the non-games category as well as the highest-ranked app Overall across the U.S. App Store.

According to data from app store intelligence firm Apptopia, GasBuddy yesterday saw 15,203 new downloads — a 59% increase from its average daily downloads, which were 9,560 for the past 30 days. However, third-party data isn’t always accurate for sudden shots in rank — it catches up a few days after the fact.

Image Credits: Apptopia

Reached for comment, GasBuddy says its downloads were actually far higher than the third-party estimates. Across all platforms, including both iOS and Google Play, it saw 20x more downloads yesterday compared with an average day in 2021. The company told TechCrunch it counted 313,001 total downloads yesterday, compared with average daily downloads for the previous 30 days of 15,339.

Broken down by platform, GasBuddy says it saw 104,735 downloads on Android and 208,266 downloads on iOS on Tuesday, May 11, 2021.

Apptopia also noted that GasBuddy hadn’t been the No. 1 app on the App Store in all the time it’s been recording app store rankings, which goes back to January 1, 2015. However, it noted the app itself launched back in 2010, making it possible (though not likely) that the app had reached No. 1 at some point.

GasBuddy confirmed that’s not the case. Today is the first time it has ever topped the App Store, though it got close once before when it reached No. 2 behind a walkie-talkie app during Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

Image Credits: App Store screenshot on Wed., May 12, 2021

Consumers can continue to track statewide fuel outages here on GasBuddy’s website as well as where highest prices are being found. In the app, they can report whether gas stations have gas or diesel, as well as current prices.

The Colonial Pipeline, which runs 5,500 miles from the Gulf to the Northeast, shut down on Friday due to a ransomware attack from a criminal hacking network known as DarkSide, which is suspected to be based in Russia or Eastern Europe. The pipeline delivers about 45% of fuel used by the Eastern Seaboard. Reports of the shutdown sent Americans to stock up on gas, worsening the situation further. The U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said the Colonial Pipeline intends to restore operations by the end of the week.

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The truth about SDK integrations and their impact on developers – TechCrunch

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The digital media industry often talks about how much influence, dominance and power entities like Google and Facebook have. Generally, the focus is on the vast troves of data and audience reach these companies tout. However, there’s more beneath the surface that strengthens the grip these companies have on both app developers and publishers alike.

In reality, software development kit (SDK) integrations are a critical component of why these monolith companies have such a prominent presence. For reference, an SDK is a set of software development tools, libraries, code samples, processes and guides that help developers create or enhance the apps they’re building.

Through a digital marketing lens, SDKs provide in-app analytics, insights on campaign testing, attribution information, location details, monetization capabilities and more.

Through a digital marketing lens, SDKs provide in-app analytics, insights on campaign testing, attribution information, location details, monetization capabilities and more. In the case of companies like Google and Facebook, their ability to provide these insights dovetails with their data and reach.

While that does deliver useful capabilities to developers and publishers alike, it also perpetuates the factors contributing to their perceived monopolistic status — and the detriments a lack of competition fosters.

Almost all (90%) ad-monetized Android apps have Google’s Admob SDK integrated, data from Statista showed. Additionally, the Facebook Audience Network SDK is present in 19% of all global Android apps utilizing mobile ads. It’s worth noting that the large majority of alternative “leading” advertising SDKs outside these two players are used less than 13% of the time in Android apps.

As the app ecosystem rapidly expands beyond the borders of mobile, app developers and publishers would benefit immensely from identifying economical and secure ways of adopting more SDKs.

The state of SDK adoption

While there are many SDKs available in the market today, a few key factors contribute to Google and Facebook’s overall dominance. The most basic is around the respective organizations’ reach and industry notoriety. However, a larger component here is the lack of resources and time app developers have.

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Sanlo raises $3.5M to help apps and games gain access to financial insights and capital – TechCrunch

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Having a great idea for an app or game is one thing, but scaling it to become a successful business is quite another. A new fintech startup called Sanlo aims to help. The company, which is today announcing an oversubscribed $3.5 million seed round, offers small to medium-sized game and app companies access to tools to manage their finances and capital to fuel their growth.

To be clear, Sanlo is not an investor that’s taking an equity stake in the apps and games it finances. Instead, it’s offering businesses access to technology, tools, and insights that will allow them to achieve smart and scalable growth while remaining financially healthy — even if they’re a smaller company without time to sit down and structure their finances. Then, when Sanlo’s proprietary algorithms determine the business could benefit from the smart deployment of capital, it will assist by offering financing.

The idea for Sanlo hails from co-founders Olya Caliujnaia and William Liu, who both have backgrounds in fintech and gaming.

Caliujnaia began her career in venture capital in one of the first mobile-focused funds, before moving to operator roles in gaming, stock photography, and fintech, at EA, Getty Images, and SigFig, respectively. She later joined early-stage fintech and enterprise fund XYZ.vc as an Entrepreneur in Residence.

Liu, meanwhile, had also worked in gaming at EA, but later switched to fintech, working at startups like Earnest and Branch.

After reconnecting in San Francisco, the co-founders realized they could put their combined experience to work in order to help smaller businesses just starting out recognize when it’s time to scale, what areas of the business to invest in, and how much capital they need to grow.

Image Credits: Sanlo’s Olya Caliujnaia and William Liu

Caliujnaia has seen how the app and gaming market has evolved over the years, and she realized the difficulties new developers now face.

“You have this explosion of the app economy that’s growing insanely,” she says. “That’s the exciting part of it. That creativity. That passion and that desire to build — that’s so admirable.”

Today, companies benefit from having access to better development tools, broader access to talent, consumer demand, and other forces, she notes, compared with those in the past. But on the flip side, it’s become incredibly difficult to scale a consumer app or game.

“I think a lot of that comes down to, one, that there are dynamics around the free-to-play model — how you monetize and therefore, what kind of players and users you bring on board,” Caliujnaia says. “And then the second aspect is that it’s just harder to get noticed. So, ultimately, it comes down to marketing.”

Many of the decisions that a company has to make on this front are predictable, however. That means Sanlo doesn’t have to sit down with businesses and consult with them one-on-one, the way a financial advisor working in wealth management would do with their clients.

Instead, Sanlo asks companies for certain types of data to get started. This includes product data about how well the app or game monetizes and customer acquisition and retention, for example, as well as marketing data and a subset of financial data. Its predictive algorithms then continually monitor the company’s growth trajectory to surface insights to identify where and how the business can grow.

This concept alone could have worked as a services business for mobile studios, but Sanlo takes the next step beyond advice to actually provide companies with access to capital. The amount of financing provided will vary based on the life stage of the company and risk profile, but it’s non-dilutive capital. That is, Sanlo takes no ownership stake in the companies it finances.

Image Credits: Sanlo

Caliujnaia said it made more sense to go this route rather than return to the VC world, because of potential to reach a wider group.

“There’s this long tail of developers and it’s more about enabling them, rather than producing more hits,” she says. “It’s very different mindsets, different markets that we’re going for.”

Sanlo doesn’t have a lot of direct competitors beyond perhaps, Silicon Valley Bank and other financial lenders, as well as mobile gaming publishers. But the publisher model often implies some sort of ownership, which is a significant differentiating factor. In some cases, you may see a larger gaming company extending debt financing to a smaller one. That was the case with Finnish mobile games company Metacore which recently raised another debt round from gaming giant Supercell, for example.

Caliujnaia points out that most smaller companies don’t have that kind of access to financing. Now they could, through Sanlo.

“The idea is to have a healthier layer of companies that are able to survive for the long-term,” she says.

That means more companies that won’t have to stress about their futures, leading to them to aggressively monetize their users, and later, scrambling for an exit when their financial runway comes to an end.

Sanlo is currently pilot testing its system with a small group of mobile game studios who will serve as its initial customer base, but plans to later support consumer apps, which have similar struggles with customer acquisition costs and growth.

The San Francisco-headquartered startup itself was founded in 2020 and began raising money. It has now raised a total of $3.5 million in seed funding co-led by Index Ventures and Initial Capital, with participation from LVP, Portag3 Ventures, and  XYZ Venture Capital. Angel investors include Kristian Segestrale (Super Evil Megacorp CEO), Gokul Rajaram and Charley Ma. 

Initial Capital co-founder and partner Ken Lamb became a board director with the fundraise, while Index partner Mark Goldberg and XYZ managing partner Ross Fubini joined as board observers.

“Sanlo cracked the code to help mobile gaming and app companies reach maturity with a new level of speed, scale, and fiscal wellbeing,” said Goldberg, in a statement. “The company is building a very sophisticated fintech offering that will give those companies superpowers.”

Sanlo plans to use the funds to grow its team and product suite ahead of its public launch later this year.

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