A new satellite cell phone company may be on the cusp of changing human history. By deploying a new approach using nanosatellites, Ubiquitlink appears poised over the next few years to connect the planet’s whole off-grid population to the Internet.
Nanosatellites are tiny 16-pound toaster-sized boxes which are now being built for under $100,000. As opposed to floating in a stationary position 35,000 miles above the earth like regular satellites, these mini sats hover about 250 miles above the earth. It turns out this is close enough to enable anyone with a regular cell phone to connect and transmit data without any perceptible lag. It works with 2g data like texts today with 4G tests scheduled for the summer of 2019.
For those of us how have become accustomed to having 4g access 99% of the time the ramifications of this profound change may not be immediately clear. But to some 3 Billion people who still do not have access to communications due to the distance from infrastructure, this could very well turn out to be a game changer.
This has the potential to change lives for the roughly 50% of the world’s population that have no communications, which in turn will to some degree change things for the rest of us.
Let’s look at some of the ramifications in three areas: Travel, Healthcare and Education.
Today we live in a segregated world. It remains segregated largely because of the fear we harbour of those that are not like us. Typically, travellers don’t like veering too far off the beaten path – especially when they don’t have an instant way of communicating should they run into trouble. The upshot of this is that we stick to our own, which of course fosters much of the same.
Over the course of the next 5 years, as this technology gains full traction with the launch of 3000 mini CubeSats, the ability to wander anywhere while still feeling the safety that always-on communication gives us means that more and more people will venture where they just wouldn’t have gone before – ideally fostering better connections for us all.
The ramifications on education are profound. Many of us in the first world forget that a large number of the second and third world population does not have access to the ever-changing material that we take for granted. This severely hamstrings their capability to educate themselves and thus remain competitive. The stratospheric growth in cell phone sales in countries in countries where there is infrastructure has shown us that communications are a basic human need that people will prioritize when it is commercially feasible. And according to Unesco (Recommendations: 1 through 6 pages 31 – 32), there is a high correlation between a populations educational growth and economic growth. Accordingly, there is no reason to think that people in the Congo are not as interested in communicating as we are in Kelowna.
One person with a cell phone and a 4g connection that spout a wifi hotspot which will provide connectivity to numerous people throughout a village. Given that education is virtually free today, it is easy to see how enabling communications tomorrow, where there is none today, will rapidly change the level of education in remote areas just like it has done in population dense areas over the last 5 years.
The technology also has great potential for reducing violence in much of the 3rd world. Today when we read the news and hear of massacres or horrific crimes being committed in faraway lands, it’s very often that people have literally no way of calling for help beyond their community.
Today, cell phone coverage can be spotty – even in Canada driving through the prairies or mountains. In a world where anybody and everyone can connect anywhere at any time the game changes, however. It’s safe to say that one’s ability to protect themselves goes up alongside their ability to communicate.
Lastly, there is healthcare. Much of subsaharan Africa has little or no formal healthcare. The ability to summon much-needed vaccines or medicine is often days or weeks away in today’s off-grid world. Here again, we see the potential for dramatic improvement through the combination of telemedicine and drones – which can now fly hundreds of miles. In today’s drone-filled world, the ability to drop ship emergency medical care is rapidly becoming an alternative.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Vodafone and Telefonica are amongst 18 mobile network operators that have successfully tested UbiquitiLink’s technology. Whether it is this firm or another, somebody will get this right. The technology truly has the potential to save millions of lives yearly and nudge the history of the world forward in ways we may not yet expect.