5G has been on a tear the last few years as wireless operators and smartphone manufacturers have made a marketing push touting higher bandwidth and lower latency for users. Yet, for all the attention that 5G gets from consumers, some of the most important new applications for the next-generation wireless technology are actually on the enterprise side. The canonical example is self-driving cars, which will presumably rely on a combination of edge computing, low latency and high bandwidth in order to work.
Yet, there are far more applications that are perhaps even more interesting and more readily deployable today than AVs. On farms, connectivity can help with managing equipment, monitoring livestock, and analyzing water usage to optimize plant growth. Logistics companies need to monitor global supply chains, tracking shipping containers as they wend their way around the world from port to port.
There’s just one problem: 5G wireless is hard to implement in rural areas where base stations are unprofitable to deploy and therefore few and far between. On the oceans of course, there are no wireless base stations at all.
DC-based Omnispace wants to offer ubiquitous 5G-compliant connectivity for enterprise users using a hybrid of wireless ground technology and satellites. The idea is that by integrating these two different modes — terrestrial and space — into one cohesive package, end users like agriculture and logistics companies wouldn’t have to transition their IoT connectivity between different types of technologies in order to secure the promise of 5G.
Today, the company announced a $60 million equity investment led by Joshua Pack of Fortress Investment Group, who serves as the burgeoning firm’s head of credit investing and also co-leads one of the firm’s SPACs, Fortress Value Acquisition. Existing investors Columbia Capital, Greenspring Associates, TDF Ventures and Telcom Ventures also participated in the round.
Omnispace started in 2012 as a holding company for wireless spectrum assets, particularly around the 2Ghz “S band” spectrum, which were purchased from the remnants of ICO Global, a satellite-based provider that had previously gone into bankruptcy. CEO Ram Viswanathan, who joined Omnispace in early 2016, said that the company started looking at how to use a technology layer to integrate its various assets together, eventually identifying an opportunity around global 5G connectivity with specific applications in IoT.
“The 5G rollout is going to be gated by the scope and rollout of mobile operators,” Viswanathan said. “Neither all of the landmass or customers are going to be covered” using traditional ground-based wireless technology. “Satellite’s main utility is really extending the reach of the network into more remote and rural areas.”
Viswanathan has spent decades in the satellite and wireless market, most recently as the co-founder of Devas Multimedia, an India-focused connectivity startup that has been embroiled in a long-running legal spat with the government there over the cancelation of the firm’s satellite launch, with U.S. courts recently ordering a government-affiliated commercialization business to pay Devas $1.2 billion in compensation.
While there is perhaps an easy comparable with SpaceX’s Starlink project, Omnispace is not focused on the consumer broadband market, but rather enterprise and IoT use cases. Furthermore, Omnispace is a hybrid network using a mix of different technologies, whereas Starlink is focused only on space deployment.
Omnispace is using its new capital from Fortress to flesh out its services and finish up pilot trials with some mobile operators and prepare the network for commercial usage starting in 2023, with the network ready in 2022. Viswanathan said that “our aim is to provide the service globally” with “a footprint that covers everywhere.”
Omnispace has contracted with Thales Alenia, part of the French space and defense conglomerate Thales Group, to execute on its space strategy. On the terrestrial side, it is tying together its spectrum assets and piloting with several mobile operators to bring out a cohesive solution, with early strength in Asia-Pacific and Latin America.