Astranis emerges from stealth with a new satellite technology for connecting the world

There’s a new entrant in the race to provide internet connectivity to the roughly four billion humans on the wrong side of the world’s digital divide.

Launching from stealth today with a new investment from Andreessen Horowitz is Astranis — the developer of a new satellite technology that aims to transmit data down to specific terrestrial locations with each satellite it launches.

That’s a significant shift from the way that like SpaceX and OneWeb are building their satellite networks. Both of those companies are launching satellites into low earth orbit — which means that their satellites orbit the earth every ninety minutes.

For those companies to provide the kind of uninterrupted connectivity that consumers demand, they’d need to have a network of hundreds — if not thousands — of satellites in place to have a fully operational network.

Astranis is planning to launch its satellites into geostationary orbit — farther from the earth and in a location that will remain fixed… which means its satellites can provide connectivity almost immediately after launch.

That differentiation was enough to compel Andreessen to make its first investment in the space space and bring on additional capital from previous investors including Y Combinator, 50 Years, and Refactor Capital.

While the long term goal may be to address the problem of the digital divide, as Astranis co-founder and chief executive John Gedmark writes in his blog post, in the near term, don’t expect to see Astranis satellites powering connectivity in emerging markets.

Astranis founders Ryan McLinko and John Gedmark

It’s not about connecting immediately the next 3 billion people but the next large swath of people that need a connectivity solution for more sparsely populated areas,” says Martin Casado, a partner with Andreessen Horowitz and director on the Astranis board. 

Casado says that customer adoption will come because regional providers that hold licenses for spectrum need to use the spectrum they own or risk losing it. Satellite communications become the only way for these license holders to provide services in areas that are too expensive to be connected in any other way.

“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,” Casado wrote in a blog post about the investment. “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.”

An advocate for connecting rural areas and indigenous communities in the U.S. through the non-profit Mural Net, Casado has experienced the frustration of trying to get access to sparsely populated communities. “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.”

Astranis tackles the immediate connectivity conundrum with its geostationary positioning, and the cost and bandwidth problem with a new model of smaller-sized satellites (roughly the size of a refrigerator) and new software-defined radio technology, according to Gedmark.

Unlike previous generations of satellites which could be massive machines that transmitted analog signals, the software defined radio technology enables higher throughput and frequency flexibility to make transmission easier and cheaper, Gedmark says.

While, Gedmark declined to discuss the specifics of the satellite’s cost, he did say that Astranis’ satellites would cost tens of millions of dollars — instead of hundreds of millions of dollars. For customers that means the magic number will be close to the industry’s targeted $75 per megabit per second per month for dedicated bandwidth, Gedmark said. “If you can get below that number you can get a lot more people online. The real goal is to get down to tens of dollars per megabit per second per month.”

There’s no doubt that Gedmark and his co-founder Ryan McLinko have the pedigree to compete with the aerospace giants pursuing satellite connectivity. Before founding Astranis, Gedmark served as the executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation — the industry association for companies including SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic — and worked as the director of rocket flights for the XPrize foundation’s launches. Meanwhile, McLinko led mechanical and electrical spacecraft research and development for Planet.

Even if the company is able to take a small percentage of the market from SpaceX and OneWeb with that kind of pricing, it would be a huge success given that the satellite telecommunications market is now worth roughly $120 billion, Gedmark estimates. And that’s without including the 4 billion people how currently can’t access the internet.

For us… it’s all about solving this problem,” says Gedmark. “The way to do that is to be in control of the satellites ourselves and get them up as fast as possible.”

Facebook expands ‘Community Boost’ digital skills training program to Europe

Facebook has announced it’s expanding a free training program that teaches Internet-skills, media literacy and online safety to Europe. It says its “ambition” is to train 300,000 people across six EU countries by 2020 — specifically in the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Poland.

It also says it will be opening “digital learning centers” in three of the countries — Spain, Italy, and Poland — as part of the program (though it’s not yet clear where exactly the three centers will be located).

The company says the training will generally be offered to “underrepresented groups”. It’s not entirely clear what that means but Facebook points to a Berlin school it set up last year, in partnership with the ReDI School of Digital Integration, which teaches classes ­such as coding and professional development to refugees, seniors citizens and young people, as a template for its thinking here.

We’ve asked for its definition of underrepresented groups; details of the application process; and its criteria for granting training places and will update this post with any additional details.

Facebook operates this digital skills training program under the brand name “Community Boost”.

While the training is offered to target recipients for free, Facebook’s business clearly stands to benefit if more people become digitally literate after being introduced to the Internet by Facebook — giving the company the chance to add more users and gain more overall eyeballs for its ad targeting platform, as indeed the name of the program implies.

Media literacy is also of increasing importance to a platform that is now bogged down with accusations that its business benefits by fencing fake news.

Back in November Facebook announced a touring Community Boost program would be doing the rounds of 30 US cities in 2018. And, as you might recall, the timing of that announcement came hard on the heels of revelations that Kremlin agents had used Facebook’s ad targeting platform to inject all sorts of divisive disinformation into Americans’ eyeballs during the 2016 presidential election in an attempt to disrupt the democratic process. Putting Zuck under pressure to have some positive domestic PR to offset all the negative headlines.

In Europe, Facebook has also been facing rising political scrutiny and displeasure. Last month, for example, the French president announced an anti-fake news election law will be incoming this year — aiming to tackle the spread of online fake news during election periods.

While in the UK parliamentarians who are running a wide-ranging investigation into fake news have expressed increasing frustration with Facebook (and Twitter) for footdragging in the face of asks they more thoroughly probe the extent of Russian involvement in the Brexit referendum vote.

So, in the EU too, Facebook is under pressure to offset a lot of bad PR. And funding some digital skills training is exactly the kind of feel-good initiative that’s positioned to play well politically — even while it also absolutely still aligns with Facebook’s core business goals of increasing online usage and thus overall eyeballs for targeting ads.

Digital skills is also a pretty woolly umbrella at this point. Facebook says — for example — that it could mean teaching coding to someone who already has “very strong skills” or helping someone else open an online bank account. It further specifies that the training offered will depend on the level of existing skills of the people being targeted — so it’s not necessarily going to be teaching much actual coding here.

To deliver the program, Facebook is partnering with digital upskilling firm Freeformers which will supply the training across the six EU countries.

“We will be using our Future Workforce Model to help individuals acquire the attributes to be employable, successful and productive in a digital world,” says founder and CEO Gi Fernando, in a statement. “These attributes will be aligned to the mindset, skillsets and behaviours industry needs in its future workforce.”

Facebook specifies there will be 50,000 training places going to target recipients in the UK (so it’s presumably going to be 50k places apiece in each of the six target EU Member States).

PRing the announcement at Davos today, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg trumpeted that the company is committing to train a total of one million people and businesses in Europe by 2020.

However she was rolling in figures from existing Facebook small business training programs, i.e. programs which are aimed at encouraging SMEs to adopt its advertising platform, to reach that politically expedient 1M figure. “These skills will help people thrive in today’s workplace and help small businesses grow and create jobs,” Sandberg added in a statement.

The company has also commissioned — and is today PRing — research in the EU markets it’s targeting which it claims show small businesses’ use of Facebook “translates into new jobs and opportunities for communities across the EU”. Though it has not released details of the methodology underpinning its findings.

It’s worth noting that not all the Community Boost training will take place in person. In the UK Facebook specifies that the program will reach 12,500 people through in-person training and 37,500 online. So if it’s replicating that split across all the countries then total in-person training places could make up just 75,000 out of the 300,000 total goal.

We’ve asked how much money Facebook is spending to fund the EU Community Boost program specifically and will update this post if it responds.

“Today’s announcements are part of our ongoing investments in digital training. Since 2011, we’ve invested more than $1 billion to support small businesses around the world. Our Boost Your Business program has trained hundreds of thousands of small businesses globally, and more than 1 million small businesses have used Facebook’s free online learning hub, Blueprint. More than 70 million small businesses use our free Pages tool to create an online presence,” Facebook adds in its blog announcement.

In a further move clearly aimed at trying to drum up positive local noise around its platform, Facebook says it will be launching a national ad campaign in the UK that will showcase small businesses that it says have used Facebook to help their businesses grow.

At the same time it is facing rather less positive sentiments from users in the UK, according to another piece of recent research…

Also today, Facebook announced a €10M investment in “accelerating AI innovation in France” — by increasing its AI research Paris’ PhD fellow places from 10 to 40.

It also says it’s funding 10 servers, as well as open datasets for French public institutions, and that it will double the team of researchers and engineers there from 30 to 60.

Companies investing in AI research are also of course investing in their own AI research departments, given the ongoing AI skills shortage and fierce industry competition for AI expertise. So that €10M for students in France is naturally positioned to help accelerate AI innovation at Facebook too.

Zooming out for a little more context, European Union lawmakers have been talking tough on tax reform lately and even entertaining ideas such as taxing digital ads. And ministers in certain Member States — including France — are very angry about tech giants’ habitual practice of profit shifting to lower tax economies (like Ireland, as Facebook has) as a strategy to minimize their overall EU tax liabilities.

Feeling the heat on that, in December Facebook said it would start to book its international advertising revenue in the countries where it is generated this year — i.e. rather than re-routing it though Ireland as it had been doing for all these years and benefiting from a lower corporate tax rate.

In the UK last year Facebook paid just £5.1M in corporation tax — despite its revenues in the market leaping up to £842.4M, for example.

And, well, just think of how many digital skills and AI upskilling programs EU governments could have invested in if Facebook had been paying taxes on its per country revenue instead of seeking to pay back the minimum possible.

Featured Image: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Google: Southeast Asia’s internet economy is growing faster than expected

Southeast Asia is now the world’s third largest region for internet users — with more people online than the entire U.S. population — and internet is having a bigger impact on the region than originally thought, according to a new report co-authored by Google.

China and India typically dominate the conversation when looking at emerging economies in Asia, but Southeast Asia is rapidly being acknowledged as a market where the internet is changing daily behaviors and creating new opportunities. A lack of data has traditionally made it difficult to pinpoint that potential but Google and Singaporean sovereign fund Temasek today released an update to their highly-referenced 2015 ‘e-Conomy SEA’ report — the main takeaway is that growth has exceeded their initial expectations.

The original report forecast Southeast Asia’s internet economy hitting $200 billion per year by 2025, but now it is estimated that it will top that number, reaching $50 billion in 2017 alone.

Online travel remains the biggest segment for internet-based spending — jumping to $26.6 billion in 2017 from $19.1 billion in 2015 — but e-commerce and ride-hailing saw the highest growth.

E-commerce, and this does not include second-hand/consumer-to-consumer sales, grew at a compound annual rate of 41 percent to cross $10 billion for the first time in 2017. The e-Conomy SEA project expects it will go on to hit $88 billion by 2025 to become the most lucrative segment.

Uber and Grab are battling it out in Southeast Asia’s ride-sharing market, while local unicorn Go-Jek has plans to expand beyond Indonesia, and that competition is reflected in the report’s newest findings.

It concluded that total spend on the taxi apps has more than doubled over the two years to cross $5 billion in 2017. The ride-hailing industry is expected to develop further still and reach $20 billion by 2025, that’s up from an original estimate of $13 billion in the first report.

Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, is likely to account for the majority of that, with the 2015 research pegging its share of revenue at more than 40 percent.

Going into more depth, the study estimated that the number of passengers using ride-hailing apps daily has more than quadrupled since the first study in 2015, while driver numbers are also up 4X.

Here are other nuggets from the report as gleaned by Google:

  • 3.6 hours on the mobile internet every day. Southeast Asians spend more time on the mobile internet than anyone else on the planet. Thailand is top of the list with 4.2 hours per day, with Indonesia a close second at 3.9 hours per day. To compare, the U.S. spends 2 hours per day, the U.K. 1.8 hours per day, and Japan 1 hour per day on mobile internet.
  • 140 minutes shopping online every month. Southeast Asians spend almost twice as much time as Americans in e-commerce marketplaces. The region will have an $88.1 billion e-commerce market by 2025.
  • 6 million rides booked through ride-hailing platforms every day. The ride-hailing market in Southeast Asia has grown four-fold since 2015 and will be $20.1 billion by 2025.
  • More than $12 billion raised by Southeast Asian startups since 2016. At 0.18 percent of GDP, the amount of investment into Southeast Asian startups is on par with India’s and a vote of confidence in Southeast Asia’s huge internet potential.

Full details of the study can be found here.

Featured Image: KYTan/Shutterstock

Amazon is previewing an IOT security service

As one of its last announcement on a day chock-full with new tools and features, Amazon previewed a new security device for the internet of things.

Called IOT Device Defender, the new service will monitor policies around devices to look for anomalies in device activity and support customized rules and auditing policies that a customer would want to put in place.

The service will also provide real-time detection and alerts based on variations from the normal device behavior defined by the rules provided by customers.

Finally, the new service will provide tools like contextual information so customers can investigate and mitigate the damage from any breaches.

Information like device information and device statistics are available through customized alerts, and users can remotely reboot a device, revoke its permissions, reset it or push security fixes through the coming Amazon service.

Featured Image: NicoElNino/Getty Images

YouTube returns to the Amazon Echo Show

When the Amazon Echo Show first debuted, it included a YouTube feature, as is right and proper for a device with a screen capable of playing video and connecting to the internet. But Google quickly nixed the Echo Show YouTube player, since it was a non-standard presentation of the company’s stuff which did not comply with their terms of use.

Now, YouTube is back on Echo Show (via Voicebot), and it looks a heck of a lot different. It now much more closely resembles what you’d expect to find when browsing YouTube on the web or on a tablet, and the new look is clearly intended to bring the YouTube app on Echo Show in compliance with the requirements set forth for its use by Google and YouTube.

The original look was probably better suited to a device that’s designed to be used primarily via voice, but the new one feels more like the YouTube people know and love, so it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Still, it’s good that it’s back – the Echo Show was born for YouTube, as an idle time consumption device that likely often lives atop kitchen counters.

OneWeb is a step closer to bringing its global, satellite-based internet services to Earth

OneWeb, the company aiming to bring the internet to the  31% of the world’s population who don’t have access to 3G connectivity, is moving one step closer to bringing its satellite services back to Earth.

The billionaire-backed corporation, which has raised over $1.7 billion from Virgin Group, SoftBank, Coca Cola, Bharti Group, Qualcomm and Airbus; just announced an exclusive $190 million contract with Echostar subsidiary Hughes Network Systems to provide some of the terrestrial infrastructure necessary to distribute its internet services.

Through the deal, Hughes Network Systems will manufacture a ground network system to support OneWeb’s low earth orbit satellites.

The contract is an extension of an earlier agreement the companies signed in June 2015 and leaves OneWeb on track to deliver its first connectivity services by 2019.

Through the deal, Hughes Network Systems will produce gateway sites with several access points for satellite tracking to smooth the handoff of high-speed user traffic between satellites.

In all, the deal brings the total contract between OneWeb and the Echostar subsidiary to roughly $300 million.

“The start of production of the ground system is a major step towards fulfilling OneWeb’s goal of bridging the digital divide, leaving no one behind,” said Greg Wyler, Founder and Executive Chairman of OneWeb, in a statement. “We are excited to deploy this essential part of our network as we ramp up to launch the first of our fleet early next year and provide service to every rural home in Alaska starting in 2019.”

The two companies began developing the ground network system two years ago and the deal cals for equipment to support satellite access points in gateway locations around the world — including purpose-built switching systems, outdoor modems and power amplifiers.

With the contract in place, shipments will begin in the middle of 2018.

For folks who don’t know (which was me, until today), Hughes Network supplies roughly half of the market for satellite-based connectivity services and is the company behind your spotty internet connectivity on airplanes around the world.

Neos launches IoT powered home insurance UK-wide

What do you get if you combine the Internet of Things with the business of home insurance? UK startup Neos is hoping the answer is prevention rather than (just) payouts.

Its home insurance product is intended to lean on sensor tech and wireless connectivity to reduce home-related risks — like fire and water damage, break ins and burglary — by having customers install a range of largely third-party Internet-connected sensors inside their home, included in the price of the insurance product. So it’s a smart home via the insured backdoor, as it were.

Customers also get an app to manage the various sensors so they can monitor and even control some of the connected components, which can include motion sensors, cameras and smoke detectors.

The Neos app is also designed to alert users to potentially problematic events — like the front door being left open or water starting to leak under their kitchen sink — the associated risk of which a little timely intervention might well mitigate.

It sees additional revenue opportunity there too — and is aiming to connect customers with repair services via its platform. So the service could help a customer who’s away on holiday arrange for a plumber to come in and fix their leaky sink, for example (there’s no smart locks currently involved in the equation though — Neos customer can name trusted keyholders to be contacted in their absence).

“The vision really is about moving insurance from a traditional claims, payout type solution… to one that’s much more preventative, and technology’s really the enabler for that,” says co-founder Matt Poll. “We also think that customers get quite a raw deal from their insurance company… for being a really good customer and not claiming… And no value.

“So what we’re trying to do is to provide value to customers throughout the term of their policy — allowing them to monitor their own homes, using our cameras and the devices that we give them. If there is an issue, they’ll get alerted. Most importantly they or us through our monitoring center and assistance service can put the things right… In that sense both the customer and us benefit if we’re successful.”

On the insurance cover front Poll claims there’s no new responsibilities being placed on customers’ shoulders — despite all the sensor kit that’s installed as part of the package. “There’s no responsibility placed on the customer. We’re really clear about that,” he tells TechCrunch. “Customers do ask this question — oh what if I don’t arm the alarm, does that mean I’m not covered? And our answer is simply of course you’re covered.”

The startup was founded 18 months ago by Poll, an ex-insurance guy, combining with a more technical co-founder. The team market tested their proposition last year in and around London, partnering with Hiscox on the insurance product offering for that trial. They’re now launching their own branded, own insurance offering nationwide.

Neos is actually offering a range of home insurance products, including a combined contents plus buildings insurance offering (or either/or), across three pricing tiers — aiming to support different levels of coverage and different types of customers, such as flat vs house dwellers, for example, or homeowners vs tenants.

While it’s generally aiming to be tech agnostic when it comes to which smart home sensors can be used — supporting a range of third party devices — Neos has developed its own smart water valve, for example, as Poll says it couldn’t find an appropriate existing bit of IoT kit in the market for that.

“It uses machine learning to monitor an individual’s water signature within their property over a period of a couple of weeks and then we can identify from that if there’s any leaks — small or large — and most importantly if a leak does arrive the customer or our monitoring sensor can turn the water off remotely,” he notes.

It’s also built its own hub to control the firmware on the third party devices its platform is integrating with. “We want to put ourselves out there to give customers the best solution for the job and move as the market moves,” says Poll on Neos’ overall philosophy towards hardware.

Despite all this additional kit to be installed in customers’ homes, Poll bills the insurance products as competitively priced (and positioned) vs more traditional insurance offerings. Neos’ prices vary from “approximately £15 to £50 per month”, which it says includes “all the necessary hardware, 24/7 monitoring and assistance plus the comprehensive insurance cover”.

“We’ve got some good early traction and I think the price point that we’ve come in at is attractive, and the value proposition is there,” says Poll, noting that the product will be on price comparison sites “by the end of this month — at the very latest”, as well as being offered through property website Zoopla, which is a distribution partner (and investor) in Neos.

He also says the insurance quote process has been radically simplified by Neos drawing on a range of publicly available data so that potential customers don’t have to answer to a large number of questions just to get a quote.

“We can actually give customers a full quote from just their postcode and their address,” he says. “We use 261 different data sources… One of our partners and early investors is Zoopla. They have a lot of data that they provide us. We also use data from Landmark and Land Registry — local authority data.

“Because all this data’s publicly available. We don’t ultimately need to ask how many bedrooms or bathrooms you’ve got — in most cases we already know that data. Actually in most cases we know the square footage of your property which is a much more accurate predictor of risk anyway.”

Another strand of the go-to-market approach is it’s also working with existing insurance brands to white label its offering — setting it up to scale more quickly into markets (and regulations) outside the UK.

“We’re just about to launch an Aviva-backed solution,” says Poll. “A lot of the big insurers are looking in this space but haven’t done anything… So we’ve had a lot of interest outside of just our direct Neos brand from larger insurers based here in the UK, Europe and also in the US.”

He says Neos is also hopeful of signing a “large scale partner in the US” — one of the top five home insurance companies — which would be a second strand to its white labeling/enterprise solution bow if they nail that deal down.

“Markets like the US… are very different from a regulation point of view and cost of entry for a small business like us to enter, so that model makes sense. But we’re very much — certainly now and we’ll always be — focused on the Neos direct to consumer brand,” he adds.

Poll says he’s hoping for a minimum of “tens of thousands” of customers within a year’s time for Neos’ b2c play — and “ideally” significant growth above that. “If you add in the b2b play as well in terms of customers actually utilizing our platform I think the potential is significantly higher than that,” he adds.

The startup has previously raised £5m in Series A funding led by Aviva Ventures and with BBC sporting personality Gary Lineker also investing. As well as Zoopla, another strategic partnership is with Munich Re, which has also invested.

Interesting takeaways from its beta period include that customers were keen to have help installing all the sensor kit (Neos is offering an installation service for a fixed price if users don’t want to fit the kit relying on its instructions themselves), and that security concerns appeared to be more of a smart home driver for the product than risks such as water leaks, so Neos tweaked some of the sensor bundles it’s now offering.

Poll also says customer feedback from the trial pushed it to offer a fix on premiums for their first three years (assuming a customer makes no claims) to reassure potential customers that it isn’t seeking to use smart home hardware to lock then in to its products and then quickly inflate premiums.

“It’s interesting how customer perceptions are,” he says, arguing there’s “a mistrust of the insurance industry as a whole” — which is something else Neos is hoping can be fixed with a little IoT-enabled preventative visibility.