When I noticed the rumors that Apple’s new iPhone 13 would come with a satellite connection I drove over to my nearest wireless store to find out more details. The idea of satellite connectivity in a mass market consumer smartphone was intriguing and I wanted to learn more.
The representatives in the carrier store I visited had no idea what I was talking about, so I moved on to the Apple store. After speaking to multiple representatives, I was able to sort out that the iPhone 13 satellite connection was no more than a rumor, which has been confirmed by further reporting.
This satellite false alarm followed similarly confusing reports that Tesla was planning to introduce a Starlink satellite connection to Tesla EVs. This, too, was farcical, especially considering the size and expense of the required antenna.
What both of these stories reflect, though, is the revolution sweeping the Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite sector. With terrestrial access to broadband increasingly constrained, internet service providers are looking to the skies for connectivity, with the objective of bringing ubiquitous satellite internet to all devices everywhere in the world.
While substantial piles of investor cash support visions of satellite-based internet access, there are still the barriers of cost and antenna requirements. Yet the need for ubiquitous connectivity to support automotive emergency response applications and the interest in content and software distribution to cars remain sufficiently compelling to motivate innovation.
Additionally, while satellite technology has been well established in the automotive sector to support mapping and location accuracy, European regulators are considering integrating of low bandwidth satellite connectivity to support the next generation emergency call mandate. This eCall-oriented application of satellite technology is a recognition of the limitations of already mandated automotive cellular connectivity.
From its first implementation several years ago the European eCall mandate – requiring a built-in 2G/3G wireless connection in all cars for automatic crash notifications – highlighted the limitations of cellular wireless coverage. The eCall solution – designed to automatically dial local public service access points to summon emergency assistance to a crash scene – would be of no help where cell coverage was unavailable.
With the onset of 5G technology, regulators are looking to upgrade the required wireless connection in cars to enable internet protocol-based communications. Simultaneously, these regulators have included satellite connectivity in recognition of the limits of cellular wireless networks.
Not surprisingly, coverage will also be an issue for autonomous vehicles. Regulators throughout the world are increasingly requiring remote control or teleoperation as part of proposals to allow the operation of autonomous vehicles on public roads. Clearly the limitations of cellular wireless coverage open the door to requirements for satellite connectivity – which have not yet been identified.
Car companies have been forced to confront the limitations of cellular wireless coverage since the first General Motors vehicles with OnStar were delivered more than 25 years ago. At the time of OnStar’s launch the primary concern was that there was cell coverage in the proximity of all GM’s thousands of dealers.
More recently, auto makers have had to confront new safety mandates and requirements including everything from cybersecurity to over-the-air software updates and driver assistance systems designed with a dependency on connectivity. The Intelligent Speed Assistant (ISA) requirement – calling for an always visible and accurate speed limit icon in instrument clusters – will require vehicle connectivity to a cloud-based application.
The ISA requirement, which will impact all cars sold in Europe beginning in 2024, is one of several low-bandwidth applications requiring predictable and ubiquitous wireless connectivity. While content delivery to cars is also a high priority, the emphasis on safety is providing impetus to the automotive satellite connectivity conversation.
It is in this context that the LEO satellite business is gaining the attention of auto makers. About 2,000 operational satellites currently orbit the Earth, and nearly two-thirds of which are in LEO. Within 10 years that number is expected to explode to 50,000, creating new opportunities for connecting cars while simultaneously driving up hardware demand and driving down costs.
Speaking at Mobile World Congress earlier this year in Barcelona, SpaceX founder Elon Musk indicated that his short-term focus was on leveraging Starlink satellites and network to support wireless backhaul for rural broadband access. Such an effort might also help improve the cellular coverage of rural highways – but with cellular not satellite service.
The current satellite connectivity path to market for vehicles as matters stand will continue to flow through armored luxury vehicles, military, mining, and agricultural applications, and autonomous vehicles. All of these activities will contribute to improvements and cost reductions in antenna technology setting the stage for the even wider deployment of satellite technology supporting internet connectivity in the large volume passenger vehicle market.
Thanks to a rethinking of emergency applications and the emergence of autonomous vehicles, automotive satellite connectivity is getting a rethink. Only satellites can deliver ubiquitous wireless coverage and can do so with an increasingly attractive price. VS
Roger Lanctot is director of Automotive Mobility in the Global Automotive Practice, and a powerful voice in defining future trends in automotive safety, powertrain, and infotainment systems. Lanctot has more than 30 years of experience in the technology industry as an analyst, journalist, and consultant.