The history of technology could be told simply as a story of things getting smaller, faster, and cheaper, which in turn opens up opportunity to more people too. Just think about the history of computing, which went from big mainframes accessible only to a select few, to personal computers, to mobile phones accessible to many.
But even as we pass 2.5 billion smartphones on earth and head towards 5 billion, we still don’t have connectivity everywhere. The reason we haven’t done so is that it’s a difficult problem. Put simply, getting internet access to a remote region requires significant up-front effort and cost that underdeveloped and sparsely populated areas are unable to bear. This is because the only practical methods for bringing broadband to an area are to trench fiber, set up point-to-point microwave towers, or send massive half-billion dollar satellites into space and as a result, charge exceedingly high rates.
I’ve experienced this directly over the last few years bringing broadband internet to indigenous communities in the United States as part of a non-profit I’m involved with. The problem of rural access is so complicated that even in the nation that birthed the internet, less than 20% of populations have connectivity in some rural tribal areas.
Fortunately, recent advances in both communication and space technologies promise to give us viable solutions to address the problem. To that end, I’m absolutely thrilled to announce our investment in Astranis, Andreessen Horowitz’s first investment in space. The company has put together the right technology and strategy to offer broadband connectivity anywhere on earth at a small fraction of what’s possible using traditional satellites.
The “micro-satellite” movement has long promised to offer practical solutions for global internet coverage. However, most efforts have focused on constellations of hundreds or thousands low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites whizzing across the sky. While such a solution may be possible over time — it’s a huge problem and market –doing so requires a full constellation of satellites in order to provide continuous coverage over any one location, and a significant amount of coordination for hand-offs to ensure continuity in service.
What we love about the Astranis approach is that they have devised a solution that provides reliable, high-bandwidth coverage with each satellite they send into space. And they can build these satellites at a small fraction of what traditional satellites cost — well over 10x price reduction. They do this by taking advantage of a number of recent developments in both satellites and communications equipment, and placing a relatively small satellite in geosynchronous orbit where it will stay at a fixed point over any location on the planet.
When we first heard the Astranis pitch, we weren’t sure we had sufficient context or background to make the investment. While we are comfortable with networking, this is space! However, over the following weeks, and with exceptional patience on the part of the team, we learned about the technology, the market opportunity, the regulatory and policy backdrop, spectrum requirements in this context, etc. and we came away big believers in the approach, and that this is the right team to do it.
In addition with impressing us by having full command of the technology and the business, Co-founder and CEO John Gedmark co-founded and ran the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, where he played a significant role in the privatization of space technology in the U.S. under the Obama Administration. Astranis Cofounder and CTO Ryan McLinko is a veteran of multiple spacecraft programs; most recently, he led engineering teams at Planet, where he played a lead role in designing over 100 small satellites. And the rest of the team has deep experience hailing from companies such as SpaceX, Orbital, and Google. But our faith in the team isn’t just based on their strong career track records, but their results; for instance, just a week ago, the Astranis team connected with a functional satellite they built and launched into space to demonstrate the core of their approach. Wow.
I am honored to join the Astranis board. We feel very privileged to be able to share the vision and passion of this team, and to be their partners as they change the world — by connecting it.