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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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IAC’s Teltech acquired encrypted mobile messaging app Confide – TechCrunch

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IAC has acquired Confide, the encrypted mobile messaging that once made headlines for its use by White House staffers during the Trump administration. The deal, which closed on Dec. 1, 2020 but was not publicly announced, sees Confide joining Teltech, the makers of spam call-busting app Robokiller, which itself had joined IAC’s Mosaic Group by way of a 2018 acquisition.

Teltech confirmed the Confide acquisition, but declined to share the deal terms. The confidential mobile messaging app had raised just $3.5 million in funding, according to Crunchbase data, and had been valued between $10 to $50 million, as a result. (Pitchbook put the valuation at ~$14 million around the same time.)

According to Teltech, the deal was for the Confide IP and technology, but not the team.

The company believes Confide makes for a good fit among its growing group of mobile communication apps, including Robokiller and its latest app, SwitchUp, which offers users a second phone number for additional privacy and spam blocking purposes. Other Teletech apps include phone call recorder TapeACall and blocked call unmasker TrapCall.

Confide, however, may end up being one of the better-known additions among that group, thanks to being remembered as a favored tool of choice among frustrated Washington Republicans during the Trump years.

But despite the user growth that news had driven, things slowed in the months that followed, when researchers published a report that claimed Confide wasn’t as secure as it had promised. Confide quickly fixed its vulnerabilities but then a month later was facing a class action lawsuit (later dismissed by the plaintiff) over the security issues.

Teltech says it was aware of the security concerns, but it had conversations with the prior Confide team and understands that the earlier issues had been “quickly and effectively remediated.”

While IAC won’t speak to its specific plans for Confide’s future, the app will continue to offer users a safe and secure way to communicate. What it won’t do, though, is try to directly compete with Telegram or other private apps that offer large channels or group chats that support tens of thousands of people at once.

“I think one kind of key differentiators is that Confide is definitely more for one-on-one and smaller group communication, rather than with Signal and Telegram where there’s some larger chat dynamics,” notes Giulia Porter, Teltech’s VP of Marketing. “One thing that makes us a little bit different is just that we’re more personal,” she says.

Despite having hit some bumps in the road over the years, Confide as of the time of the acquisition, still had around 100,000 monthly active users. There’s now a team of around 10 assigned to work on the app, adding needed resources to its further development, and soon, an updated logo and branding.

Confide’s existing desktop and mobile apps will also continue to be available, but later updated with new features as part of Teltech’s efforts.

Investors and IAC alike have declined to talk about deal price, but that may speak for itself.

“With the absolute explosion in privacy over the past several years, Confide, which started as a side project, has become a mission-critical platform for sensitive communication throughout the world,” said Confide co-founder and President Jon Brod, in a statement shared with TechCrunch about Confide’s exit.

“We’re thrilled that IAC shares our passion for secure communication and recognizes the unique business we have built. IAC has a proven track record of providing fast-growing companies with the support to reach their full potential and we are excited to see IAC take Confide to the next level,” he said.

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Apple just had its best quarter in India – TechCrunch

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When Apple reports its earnings on Wednesday, you can expect mentions of India on the call.

Apple shipped more than 1.5 million iPhone units in India in the quarter that ended in December, up 100% year-on-year, making this its best quarter in the world’s largest smartphone market to date, according to research firms Counterpoint and CyberMedia.

Thanks to the improved sales of older generation iPhone 11, iPhone XR, iPhone 12 and the newer iPhone SE, Apple doubled its market share in India to 4% in the quarter, the research firms said.

Overall, Apple shipped more than 3.2 million iPhone units in India in 2020, up 60% year-on-year, Counterpoint said.

The shipment growth comes months after Apple launched its online store in the country and offered customers a wide-range of financing and upgrade options, AppleCare+, and lucrative perks such as a free set of AirPods with the purchase of iPhone 11. The company plans to open its first physical retail store in the country later this year.

For more than a decade, Apple has struggled to sell its handsets in India because of the expensive price tags they carry. Most smartphones that ship in India are priced between $100 to $200. Samsung, and a group of Chinese smartphone vendors including Xiaomi, Oppo, and Vivo flooded the market in the past decade with their affordable smartphones.

None the less, in recent years Apple has visibly grown more interested in the country that is also one of the world’s fastest growing smartphones markets. The company’s contract manufacturers today locally assemble a range of iPhone models and some accessories — an effort the company kickstarted more than two years ago. (A recent violent event at an Indian facility of Wistron, one of Apple’s contract manufacturers, however, underscored some of the challenges Apple will grapple with as it looks to scale its local production efforts in the country.)

That move has allowed Apple to lower prices of some older generation iPhone models in India, where for years the company has passed import duty charges to customers. The starting price of the iPhone 12 Pro Max is $1,781 in India, compared to $1,099 in the U.S. (Apple has yet to start locally assemble the iPhone 12 units.) The AirPods Pro, which sells at $249 in the U.S., was made available in India at $341 at the time of launch. AirPods Max, similarly, is priced at $815 in India, compared to $549 in the U.S. (It doesn’t help that an average person in India makes $2,000 a year.)

Unlike most foreign firms that offer their products and services for free in India or at some of the world’s cheapest prices, Apple has focused entirely on a small fraction of the population that can afford to pay big bucks, Jayanth Kolla, chief analyst at Convergence Catalyst, told TechCrunch.

That’s not to say that Apple has not made some changes to its price strategy for India. The monthly cost of Apple Music is $1.35 in India, compared to $9.99 in the U.S. Its Apple One bundle, which includes Apple Music, TV+, Arcade and iCloud, costs $2.65 a month in India.

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‘Anti-superficial’ dating app S’More raises $2.1M – TechCrunch

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S’More, a dating app that’s focused on helping users find more meaningful relationships, announced today that it has raised $2.1 million in seed funding.

S’More (short for “something more”) ensures that users can’t focus on physical appearance, because photos are  initally blurred — they gradually un-blur as you interact with someone. The startup has introduced new features like video chat (also blurred initially), and it launched a redesigned app of the beginning of this month — CEO Adam Cohen-Aslatei said it’s a “completely rebuilt product” with new features like real-time conversation prompts and the ability to pay to promote your profile.

Cohen-Aslatei also said that S’More’s focus on “anti-superficial relationships” is attracting a real audience, with 160,000 downloads in its first year and “thousands” of paying users, including a 50% increase in subscriptions after launching the new app in January.

Looking at how dating will evolve after the pandemic, Cohen-Aslatei suggested, “I don’t think we’re going back to the way things were.” He pointed to a recent survey of S’More users in which 80% of respondents said they hadn’t gone on a single live, in-person date in 2020.

“Do you want to meet for casual encounter on Tinder, or do you have to want to have a conversation get to know a real person on S’More?” he said. Assuming that many people will choose the latter, the next question is: “How do you make discovery fun? There’s got to be multimedia, video, audio, games, all of those features are part of our product roadmap … S’More will feel like Hinge meets Nextdoor.” (Apparently, there’s “a huge cohort” of users on Nextdoor who are single and looking for relationships.)

Image Credits: S’More

The new funding comes from a long list of investors: Benson Oak Ventures, Mark Pincus’ Workplay Ventures, Gaingels VC, Loud Capital/Pride Fund
SideCar Angels, AppLovin Chairman Rafael Vivas, Joshua Black of Apollo Management, Plus Grade CEO Ken Harris, Harvard geneticist George Church, former Meet Group CEO John Abbott, former IMAX CEO Brad Weschler, Aaron and Sharon Stern, Justen Stepka/Enterprise Fund, Boston Harbor Angels, Grit Daily CEO Jordan French, Kind.Fund founder Marty Isaac, Craig Mullett and Dating Group.

Cohen-Asletai told me the funding has already allowed him to hire what he’s calling a “founding team,” including chief architect Long Nguyen, head of operations Sneha Ramanchandran, head of product and design Regina Guinto and senior developer David Lichy.

S’More is also announcing that it has signed a production deal with producers Elvia Van Es Oliva and Jack Tarantino, who have worked on shows like “90 Day Fiancé.” Cohen-Asletai said the startup will work with them to create “anti-superficial” dating content for digital platforms and TV networks.

This deal builds on the success of S’More Live, the startup’s celebrity dating show on Instagram Live, which has aired 60 episodes so far.

“We’re using that show to build our brand, to gain awareness and then …
we’re actually able to leverage all of the viewers and retarget them with content from S’More, which has made our cost to acquire a user [very affordable],” Cohen-Asletai said.

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