Getting 4 billion people online

Mar 1, 2018 · 5 min read

Introducing Astranis, the future of telecommunications satellites

Four billion people do not have access to the internet. Today we are excited to introduce you to Astranis, the company we started to change that.

We are building the next generation of smaller, lower-cost telecommunications satellites to bring the world online. And for the first time we can share what Astranis has been doing — including details of our first demo satellite that is already on orbit — and how you can join the effort.

Why we are doing this

Connectivity is an epic, global problem. It extends everywhere from my childhood home of Kentucky, where there are still over 1 million people who do not have broadband internet access, to developing countries, to some of the most remote places on Earth.

This matters because studies have shown gaining internet access improves health, reduces inequality, improves educational outcomes, leads to stronger civic society, and helps eliminate poverty. Every additional person online gets to participate in the ever-growing global conversation and public debate.

An incredibly hard problem

Getting someone online in a not-already-connected area is hard. Today there are three ways to do this: (1) fiber optic cable networks, (2) point-to-point microwave connections, and (3) satellite links. Each has their own set of challenges.

Digging trenches to run fiber optic cable is spectacularly expensive and won’t be affordable in many developing countries for generations. For island nations and other remote places it will never be feasible. Point-to-point microwave links can work in some cases, but have bandwidth limitations that can quickly get saturated.

That leaves satellites links, which are expensive. Traditional satellites cost hundreds of millions of dollars. That should come as no surprise when today’s telecommunications satellites are this big:

Instead of getting smaller over time, these satellites have only gotten bigger and more expensive. Today geostationary satellites can weigh over 6.5 tons. That’s more than the weight of an African elephant, for one big box of electronics.

In the space industry, we call this the Battlestar Galactica approach: one massive ship to do it all. The problem is that as the size of a satellite goes up, the longer it takes to build, the bigger your facilities need to be, and the more your business depends on it working perfectly. As a result, costs go up exponentially.

A new approach

My co-founder Ryan and I started Astranis because we believe there is a better way. By building small satellites — ours are around the size of a mini-fridge — and using modern electronics and our proprietary manufacturing methods, we can reduce these costs dramatically. Our satellites will sit in a special orbit called Geostationary Orbit (GEO) — the satellite is fixed over a specific point on Earth. This is different than the approach others are taking, putting hundreds or thousands of small satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). A person connected to a LEO network of satellites will connect to each satellite for a few minutes at a time before it goes out of view, requiring connection handoffs between spacecraft. With our approach, we can get started as early as next year with a first satellite that has real capacity. And by building many such satellites, we can achieve an economy of scale of manufacturing that would be impossible with current large GEO spacecraft designs.

To make this work, one of the biggest technological challenges was to rethink satellite radios. The majority of telecommunications satellites today are still analog. They do no digital signal processing on board the spacecraft, and they are very limited in what they can do. By bringing our satellites into the digital domain, we open up a whole world of possibilities — everything from flexibility around what frequencies we use, to increased capacity, to more sophisticated types of switching and routing.

We’ve been working on this technology for two years, and last month we launched a satellite into space that contains an early prototype of our software-defined radio technology. I’m excited to report that all tests worked perfectly. We successfully demonstrated streaming HD videos up to the spacecraft, processed in real-time by our digital payload, and then sent back down again to our ground station in Alaska.

The Astranis Demosat passing over our groundstation in Fairbanks, Alaska

An extraordinary team

This wouldn’t be possible without an incredible team of seasoned engineers with backgrounds from both new space companies like SpaceX and Skybox, and large aerospace companies like SSL and Orbital. And we have some of the best people in the world at what they do from companies like Qualcomm and Google.

To add to our team, we’ve found the perfect partner in our newest investor: Andreessen Horowitz. They recently led our Series A, with participation from other leading investors Y Combinator, Fifty Years, Refactor Capital, and Indicator Fund. Martin Casado, a General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz, has joined our board and he has personally been working to solve the problem of connecting underserved communities. Dan Berkenstock, the founding CEO of Skybox, is joining us as a Board Observer.

At Astranis, we envision a world where everyone is connected, where every child can learn to code through online courses, where a mother without access to local healthcare can consult with a physician without leaving her home, and where people in rural areas benefit as much from the innovation of our modern world as those in urban areas. This can only happen if we affordably connect everyone, everywhere, so that’s what we intend to do.

Ultimately, whether we succeed in our mission will depend on this growing team. If you want to be a part of solving one of the humanity’s greatest challenges, come talk to us. We’re hiring: https://jobs.lever.co/astranis

John Gedmark

Written by

Cofounder & CEO of Astranis. Your friendly neighborhood rocket scientist.

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