There is a sense of safety that comes with being connected, a contemporary feeling that surpasses cultures and identities. Losing access to data, voice or messaging services deters users around the world from exploring unique places and fulfilling their dreams as that important sense of security vanishes. Satellite connectivity has for decades allowed privileged users to remain connected – and safer – thanks to orbital systems that made their world smaller with specialist devices operating under mobile satellite services (MSS).
In 2022, the telecommunications sector made history by bridging the previously thought impossible link between cell phones and satellite networks, what we refer to as “direct-to-handset” (DTH) connectivity. It took the alignment of a mature non-Geostationary (NGSO) system, advanced nanotechnology, as well as active cooperation between a smartphone manufacturer and a satellite operator to make DTH a reality, because the network and commercial hurdles were too complex to solve without economic incentives.
The importance of the iPhone 14’s Emergency SOS launch by Apple is far greater than solving the technical equation of DTH – the tech giant really pushed an entire industry toward that user safety goal that two disjointed industries (mobile and satellite) may have taken many more years to achieve. Only one year after that launch, we can count at least five additional ventures that have announced they will commence DTH services by 2024, namely AST SpaceMobile, Lynk, SpaceX, Ligado, and Iridium.
The expansion of DTH, and its enhancement from limited emergency services to supplemental coverage for mobile operators, still has substantial challenges. These are technical, economic, and regulatory. The core issues refer to lack of information about potential users or a clear target market; spectrum scarcity for MSS that would hinder satellite operators to support DTH while maintaining their customer base; and differences in regulation between satellite services and mobile connectivity industries due to their needs and differentiated operational models.
In the Access Partnership report: The future of Smartphones: Effectively regulating direct-to-handset services, spectrum engineers, policy experts and economists laid out the foundation for these three conversations to find a common platform for discussion. It would be a mistake to disregard the need for a multi-disciplinary approach in the case of DTH. Substantial progress to facilitate DTH has been made through the standardization of some frequency bands in the lower SHF radio spectrum, namely - and S-bands, which despite being focused on 5G NB NTN provide some guidance to technology developers and operators alike for what is to come.
Separately, the FCC’s proposition of a clearly defined initiative for integrating supplemental coverage from space (SCS) was an important announcement, but it presented a challenge to the international telecommunications industry because it interferes with the separately defined status of services by ITU’s Radio Regulations for the deployment of DTH and devices. In simple terms, MSS services and networks are regulated and licensed different to the mobile service (MS) and there are important technical and policy reasons for it. Additionally, the current global MSS spectrum allocations are insufficient – and often unharmonized – for an expected future where billions of devices may rely on systems with limited access to spectrum, even when the current problem to solve is that of connecting the few in many places, rather than the many in few locations. The ITU-R sector is destined to dwell on this issue, particularly as a new study cycle begins in 2023 and an increasing number of satellite operators simultaneously demand access to spectrum in order to provide their singular innovative DTH connectivity offering.
I would like to offer some thoughts as we enter a new chapter in the DTH era. First, that the impartial and guiding role of ITU is non-negotiable if we are serious about achieving a world where ubiquitous connectivity becomes a reality. DTH became a reality by aligning with existing regulation, proving that innovation is possible and incentivized. The focus should be on the principle of interoperability — DTH services as part of the 5G and forthcoming 6G ecosystems — which has recently been agreed under the ITU’s IMT 2030 framework. Also, by concentrating on minimizing interference risks and respecting the best-practices that allowed for the satellite industry to achieve this major development in the first place.
Second, that national regulatory authorities consider the true value of DTH for the economy when licensing MSS spectrum. Today this is already embodied in emergency communication services, but it may revolutionize the behavior of an ever-connected user, just like the first set of smartphones and data services did in just two decades. This in turn creates an opportunity for a DTH ecosystem and investment to emerge, affecting other economic verticals directly. A reminder that DTH is only the first step towards direct-to-device, inclusive of IoT – our thinking should be broader.
Lastly, that the complexity of licensing DTH may be simplified by going back to principles of user protection, where privacy, security and quality of services remain valid; efficient spectrum management that protects important existing services from harmful interference; and conceiving DTH not just as a technical advancement for already connected smartphone users, but as the only viable path towards bridging the connectivity divide, providing any user anywhere with that empowering sense of safety we wish for. VS
Ivan Suarez is the head of space and spectrum policy for tech advisory firm Access Partnership