Satellite startup Swarm kicks off space-based Internet service

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Swarm Technologies, among the first of a new breed of startups racing to offer Internet connections from low-cost satellites, said on Tuesday it had started selling its service to businesses.

Providing connectivity from 81 tiny satellites each about the size of a grilled cheese sandwich, Swarm’s network can gather data from remote water sensors and weather stations and even track honey levels in beehives. The cost—$119 for a communications module to attach to a sensor, plus connectivity charges of $5 per device per month—is a fraction of what older satellite services like Iridium charge.

“We hope to onboard hundreds of customers in 2021 and get devices all over the world happily beeping away,” said CEO Sara Spangelo. “We’re definitely not just a paper satellite company. We’re a real satellite company offering services.”

The total number of connected devices on Swarm’s network should hit hundreds of thousands this year, she predicted.

The company’s satellite network doesn’t provide high-speed connections for transmitting video or other data-intensive operations. Rather, Swarm’s network is designed for small bits of data, like locations from a GPS sensor or water levels from a soil monitor, once an hour or so.

One customer is testing Swarm to monitor the temperature of COVID-19 vaccine shipments, which must remain frozen at extremely low temperatures at all times, the company said.

Bruce Trevarthen, CEO of another early customer, New Zealand–based LayerX Group, which monitors connected sensors for businesses, said he switched from more expensive traditional satellite services to Swarm because of the cost. “The punchy parts here are definitely financial,” he said.

A beekeeper’s hive-monitoring sensors that cost $450 monthly to connect using traditional satellite services costs under $15 a month through Swarm, Trevarthen said. Before Swarm, the high price of connectivity “ruled out 99% of all the use cases,” he added.

A customer of LayerX Group monitors beehives with sensors connected to Swarm’s satellite network.

Providing Internet service from space is an increasingly crowded market, although the largest satellite startup rivals, like Elon Musk’s Starlink and Jeff Bezos’s Project Kuiper, want to loft thousands of satellites and offer Internet service fast enough for consumers at home. Meanwhile, like Swarm, many smaller startups are vying to offer Internet connections for sensors and machines, including Hiber, Myriota, and Astrocast.

In addition to lofting its satellite fleet, Swarm also spent 2020 building a network of ground-based receivers around the world, including at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. CEO Spangelo and chief technology officer and cofounder Ben Longmier traveled to the South Pole region to help install the ground station equipment.

Swarm has raised a total of over $36 million from investors including Social Capital, 4DX Ventures, and NJF Capital, as well as EarthLink founder Sky Dayton and PayPal cofounder David Sacks. This year, it plans to use some of that money to almost double the size of its satellite fleet to 150.

Early on, Swarm got into trouble for some decisions that were intended to give it a jump on rivals. The company launched its first three satellites at the end of 2017 without permission from the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the market for U.S. companies. Swarm ended up being fined almost $1 million.

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