Can metamaterials perfect satellite broadband?

A new company emerging from Intellectual Ventures is creating so-called metamaterials that it plans to embed in satellite antennas. These artificial materials are engineered with properties that wouldn’t normally exist in nature , and in the case of IV’s new spin-off Kymeta they would be used to manipulate way satellite waves connect to fast-moving objects on the Earth’s surface. Think a unidirectional satellite dish.

Kymeta is the second startup to be spun out of Intellectual Ventures’ vast intellectual property portfolio, having launched its first, nuclear power startup TerraPower, in 2008. But as my colleague Jeff Roberts points out, IV’s primary business is that of a patent troll, vigorously pursuing legal action against companies that don’t agree to license its vast trove of intellectual property. IV, however, has been trying to clean up its image, insisting it will use its intellectual property for both public good and technological innovation. According to its website, Kymeta is the first commercial offspring from a decade of work in the field of metamaterials:

Kymeta is the result of our patience and persistence. Based on IV’s metamaterials satellite antenna technology (MSA-T), Kymeta’s mTenna products will simplify the satellite connections needed for broadband Internet on the go, anywhere in the world.

Why not just develop this product ourselves? IV creates new companies like Kymeta (or previously TerraPower) to focus on bringing particularly promising new inventions to market so that our inventors can continue doing what they do best – dreaming up the next big idea.

Kymeta will part from IV with a fistful of cash, $12 million, supplied by some impressive backers: Bill Gates, Liberty Global and Lux Capital. It plans to put those funds to use building briefcase-sized satellite antennas that can be mounted on planes, trains, boats and ships and just about any highway vehicle.

Satellite may not seem like the most cost-effective or efficient way of providing broadband to a train or bus full of laptop-wielding passengers, but the technology has come a long way in recent years. Last year, ViaSat put a satellite into orbit that can support up to 140 Gbps of capacity throughout its North American footprint. Those impressive delivery capabilities mean ViaSat(s vsat) and its partner Dish Network(s dish) can offer 12 Mbps downlink and 3 Mbps uplink speeds for little more than the cost of a cable or DSL connection.