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Although it’s 2018, large portions of our planet still remain without access to mobile phone signals or access to digital communications. This could soon change, due to shrinking satellite sizes and costs. Cheaper space-based mobile phone services will soon be a reality, with many companies and firms turning to nano-satellite fleets that will bounce your voice or text signal from one spacecraft to the next, until it eventually reaches the individual with whom you’re communicating—essentially forming a sort of satellite mesh network.

Firms like Sky and Space Global (SAS) want to offer customers mobile connections using a network of 200 shoebox-sized satellites that weigh just 22 pounds each. The fleet is projected to be fully operational by 2020, which will provide text, voice, and data transfer services to the planet’s equatorial regions. Large swaths of Latin America and Africa occupy this part of Earth, where up to three billion people currently live.

“People were thinking of using nano-satellites for Earth imagery, but nobody had thought of using them for voice or text communications,” says Israeli former fighter pilot Meir Moalem, the chief executive of SAS. “We were the first.”

SAS is just one of several companies with ambitious aspirations to connect billions of people in less-technologically advanced parts of the world. SpaceX, for example, is aiming to build a massive 4400-satellite constellation with the aim of also offering global internet coverage. The company will use its own Falcon-9 rockets to launch their fleet, and plans on having the network up and running by 2024.

“Affordable mobile services are critical for the economic and social development of many developing countries,” says Moalem. “Our total constellation costs just $150 million. That’s less than the cost of a single standard communications satellite. This is what we mean when we talk of a disruptive technology.”

OneWeb projects their 800-satellite network will be operational by 2020, which will also focus on global broadband. Google and Samsung are also working on similar projects. One issue that could arise from these overlapping projects is how they’ll all be locked in low-Earth orbits. This lies in an altitude roughly 1200 miles above the planet’s surface, and is becoming an increasingly crowded space for crafts like satellites. This could potentially complicate future launches, especially with the inevitable increase in hazards like space debris. There also lies the financial aspect, as not every planned constellation will successfully find investors to meet their funding goals.

Some researchers and professors like MIT’s Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Vincent Chan, believe the miniaturization of satellites and cheaper launch vehicles are a strong indication that nano-satellites are finally ready to serve the public. Chan believes lower-cost infrastructure could garner much-needed mobile communications to the world’s poorer regions, thus reducing the digital divide.

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