Meet Kymeta, The Company That Could Bring High Speed Wi-Fi To Cars

Kymeta, the developer of a new, “smart” antenna, recently completed a milestone test for their core technology, the mTenna.

Designed to bring Wi-Fi to cars, planes, and boats, the mTenna is a patented, lightweight, low-power, flat-panel antenna that can communicate with satellites in order to provide internet to consumers.

The company says its unique technology can maintain satellite communication on-the-go. Attachable to virtually anything that moves, the mTenna can provide internet access anywhere in the world; including your car, your next flight, or on a cruise ship in the middle of nowhere.

While it may look different, the Kymeta antenna is performing essentially the same function as a satellite dish (which is also an antenna) that you’d see on the roof of a house.

The difference here is that the standard satellite dish can be thought of as a “dumb” antenna. It just points at one area in the sky and doesn’t move. Kymeta’s antenna has no moving parts, but can communicate with satellites across the entire sky.

It relies on software to electronically acquire signals from satellites. The Kymeta antenna’s simplicity and size (it’s about the size of a large pizza) makes it possible to include the technology on vehicles where size and weight are important.

“What we’re doing with antenna technology is completely transformative to the way people communicate” – Nathan Kundtz, Kymeta chief executive

If Kymeta’s mTenna can be perfected, it will be a radical improvement over existing technologies.

For example, United uses an antenna created by Panasonic which can also communicate with satellites, but is thicker and larger than the mTenna and is controlled by motors that move the antenna around to catch a satellite signal.

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Panasonic Ku-band antenna/ Image from Panasonic

With any object that is moving through the air at high speeds, like cars and planes, drag is a critical factor for fuel consumption and handling qualities.

An antenna on top of these vehicles can bring Wi-Fi capabilities, but it will also mean more drag which leads to more money spent on fuel. For these reasons, making the antenna smaller and slimmer is better for business. Also, the fact that the mTenna has no moving parts is also an advantage because that means less friction, less wear, and less noise.

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A Panasonic antenna on top of a United airplane/Image courtesy of United

There are also already a few connected cars on the market today that offer WiFi today. However, these cars are not communicating with satellites. Instead, they’re using LTE coverage, which, on average, only provides speeds of around 5 megabits per second (Mbps) – which is only a fifth the speed of what the FCC defines as broadband internet in the US.

“By satellite, we can provide more than a Gigabit per second (Gbps), and we can cover very large areas,” says Kymeta chief executive, Nathan Kundtz. “In fact, with the coverage that exists today, we can provide a Terabit per month to every car in the world.”

Satellite-internet also as the advantage of near-global coverage. With LTE-based internet, the internet goes out when the cell service drops.

While internet-connected cars may seem like a luxury now, it may become the norm if self-driving cars become more prevalent. Smart, autonomous cars would rely on real-time traffic information and be able to share and receive information from other autonomous cars.

This will require constant, reliable connection to the internet. Instead of ensuring reliable LTE coverage across the globe, cars equipped with satellite-internet are likely to be a more economical solution.

The technology is not on the market just yet. However, they recently completed an important test that proved its on-the-go functionality. The Kymeta team embedded their flat-panel antenna on top of the roof of a car and tested it over the course of 8,000 miles.

The key to Kymeta’s smart antenna technology is that it can maintain internet connection when either the user is moving… or the satellites themselves are moving.

This test confirmed three main capabilities.

First, it  showed that the mTenna could maintain connection with Ku-band satellites, whereas previously the antenna had just been tested with Ka-band satellites. These two types of satellites operate on different frequencies and satellite operators may include both types of satellites in their constellations.

Second, it showed that the mTenna’s linear polarization was working properly, which means that it could track the polarization of a signal as well as the orientation of the satellite while on the move. This capability is important in order to avoid signal degradation while mobile. And lastly, it proved that the mTenna could maintain constant communication with satellites over the course of 8,000 miles.

Currently, Kymeta is working with Intelsat, the owner and operator of the world’s largest satellite fleet.

Intelsat’s satellites are stationed in geostationary orbit (GEO), which mean they are far enough away from the Earth that they orbit at the same rate that the Earth is spinning. This allows them to stay in the same position in the sky relative to the user on the ground. The downside of receiving internet from satellites in GEO is there are often latency issues (time delays) because of their distance from the Earth.

However, Kymeta’s technology is also compatible with satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), like the constellation that OneWeb plans to bring online in the next few years. Once online, these LEO satellites will enable low-latency high speed internet.

The key to Kymeta’s smart antenna technology is that it can maintain internet connection when either the user is moving, like in an automobile, or the satellites themselves are moving, like the satellites in a LEO-based constellation.

The next steps for Kymeta include a number of Alpha and Beta tests over the next year, with a pilot antenna ready to go by the end of 2016. Kundtz also told TechCrunch that they have already selected a car manufacturer to partner with to bring this technology to market. This partnership will be announced in mid-January of 2016.

While further testing still needs to be done, Kymeta’s mTenna would be a vast improvement over current technologies in our Wi-Fi-absolutely-everywhere-you-go world. If all goes well, expect to see this technology on top of the next wave of connected planes, trains, and automobiles in a few years.