Time will tell us whether satellite-to-device services will emerge as a winning bet for an industry eager to establish a foothold in the lucrative wireless broadband market.
At any given moment around the world, 15 percent of the planet’s 5.2 billion mobile phone users are not connected, according to research conducted by Lynk, the first company to demonstrate a satellite-to-device satellite constellation.
What if those disconnections – from being in a remote area far from terrestrial signals or cut off from cell service following a natural disaster – were a thing of the past?
That reality is coming as satellite-to-cell service emerges as a viable service, first by startups and soon by major telco and handset players. The lifesaving and efficiency benefits of connecting satellite-to-device, especially directly to unmodified cell phones is clear – people will no longer be out of touch or require a specialized device to connect.
While satellite-to-device startups, Lynk and AST SpaceMobile, already enjoy early market advantage, with Lynk just receiving the FCC’s greenlight to offer service internationally, the market could scale faster following a wave of partnering agreements between T-Mobile and SpaceX, and Apple and Globalstar.
T-Mobile, the second-largest wireless carrier in the U.S. with 110 million customers, is working with SpaceX so that the second generation of Starlink satellites can connect directly to the carrier’s phones at no cost.
“The reality is that terrestrial cellular tech has limitations. It just can’t cover everywhere due to land use restrictions, topography, or technical limitations. This allows us to bring coverage a step farther to these remote areas,” Karri Kuoppamaki, senior vice president of Radio Network Technology & Strategy, T-Mobile, tells Via Satellite.
The company plans to begin a beta program late next year, initially offering text, picture messaging and participating messaging apps, “with a goal of enriching the service with voice and data coverage in the coming years,” Kuoppamaki stated. The carrier added that no extra equipment will be needed because the vast majority of smartphones already on T-Mobile’s network should be compatible with the new service.
Apple just announced that its emergency SOS messaging service via Globalstar’s satellite network is now available on all iPhone 14 models for customers in the United States and Canada. The company serves about 23 percent of all smartphone users worldwide, or 1.2 billion people, with Android users accounting for the remaining market of 7.26 billion. According to Apple, iPhone 14 customers can access the SOS feature free for the first two years.
Striving to make a cell phone work over satellites isn’t new, with early efforts in the 1990s led by Iridium and Globalstar and later, by TerreStar, with disappointing results.
“The service didn’t live up to expectations…you had to be out in a field. You couldn’t be under a tree or inside a building or even in a car,” recalls Tim Farrar, president of TMF Associates. He notes that Iridium’s first satellite phone users were journalists in war-torn Kosovo in early 1999, who quickly discovered that the phones didn’t work inside during rainy or wintry weather.
The stigma of Iridium’s failure in particular slowed progress of the market, say several sources, but today, the picture is much brighter, with many technical hurdles overcome, especially in the handset itself.
Tackling Spectrum and Technology Challenges
Wisniewski contends that the key to ubiquitous global coverage is flexible technology that can support multiple frequencies, given that there are very few globally aligned frequencies. “In order to tap into phones, you need to have a range of frequencies to offer,” he says.
While many market entrants depend on the spectrum from MNOs or mobile satellite service (MSS) providers to reach consumers, the field of potential partners is limited. They include LEO providers Globalstar and Iridium and Geostationary Orbit (GEO) players Inmarsat and EchoStar. OmniSpace is a new category of company, with its 5G hybrid mobile network that will rely on telecom operators’ mobile networks on the ground.
Asked if GEO players might pursue the satellite-to-device market, many industry insiders expressed doubt. Most GEO providers “are not well aligned for the satellite-to-device market,” says Wisniewski, not only because of the latency issues in GEO, but also because of the complexity and the partner ecosystem the market requires.
“No one has all the pieces and that’s why we’ve been at it for so long,” Wisniewski adds.
AST SpaceMobile has worked on its space-based cellular broadband solution since 2017, including teaming up with Nokia for the last two years on core network solutions designed to reduce latency. There is typically a 20 to 40 millisecond delay in LEO, compared to GEO satellites’ 500-millisecond delay.
“While it’s possible to do texting or emergency service over GEO, to work with the five billion cell phones that exist today, LEO is your best solution,” Wisniewski says.