Satellite direct-to-cell is an area that has dramatically increased in activity in the past year, with new demonstrations, services, and partnerships launched. The promise of satellite-to-cell is connecting unmodified cell phones directly to satellites, enabling messaging or 4G, even 5G connectivity outside of cellular networks.
Some of the biggest names in consumer electronics and telecommunications have struck deals including Apple, T-Mobile, Qualcomm, and Samsung. It has the potential to be a major market, disrupting the communications industry as a whole, says Andrew Cavalier, satcom industry analyst for ABI Research. Satellite-to-cell connections will reach 6.8 million by 2027, ABI Research anticipates.
“While these services will likely have to differentiate with performance, service types, and zones of coverage, the emergence of these services could be the beginning of truly ubiquitous global consumer networks,” Cavalier says. “Consolidations and partnerships will escalate throughout the industry and communication service providers that lack satcom in their arsenal will find themselves at a disadvantage to competitors that can operate on a global scale and provide their service virtually anywhere.”
Here is a look at some of the developments over the past year and how the SATELLITE 2023 program is addressing the topic.
Monday’s panel — “The Satellite-Cellular Convergence - A New Era for the Telco Industry?” — brings together many of the satellite players, including Iridium CEO Matt Desch; Jonathan Hofeller, vice president of Starlink, Commercial Sales for SpaceX; and Lynk CEO Charles Miller.
Jason Nelson, vice president of Partnerships and Development for the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA), is moderating the panel. Even having WIA be a part of a satellite event is more evidence of the satellite-telco convergence underway.
Lynk is an early player in the area, taking the approach of designing a satellite that can connect directly to unmodified phones on Earth. The company has demonstrated that the technology works, has three “cell tower” satellites in space, and commercial agreements with 25 MNOs covering 41 countries. The technical feat of connecting directly to a phone also has Lynk up for Satellite Technology of the Year, which will be announced on Wednesday.
SpaceX made a splash in August with its T-Mobile partnership, and is working with the telco to design the second generation of Starlink satellites to connect directly with cell phones on T-Mobile’s network in the United States. In order to communicate in cellular spectrum with cell phones, the second generation Starlink sats will have large phased array antennas in addition to the Ku- and Ka-band antennas on the satellites.
And Iridium is addressing this market as well. Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon Satellite processors, part of the flagship Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 Mobile Platform, can enable satellite direct-to-cell service on next-generation Android phones via Iridium’s satellite network. Iridium and Qualcomm demonstrated the satellite-to-cell service at CES in January, and details about how the service will be packaged and sold are being worked out. Qualcomm has said the first product will hit the market in the second half of this year. Cell phone manufacturers Honor, Motorola, Nothing, OPPO, vivo, and Xiaomi recently signed on to develop smartphones with satellite communication capabilities.
The industry has come a long way. Not many years ago, the wireless industry considered satellite an option of last resort, says Euroconsult Principal Advisor Maxime Puteaux.
“These recent announcements demonstrate a next phase in the growing convergence between satellite and wireless industries. It is an example where both are proactively working together to build and deliver new services,” Puteaux says. “There is still a lot of hard work to do on the technical, regulatory and go-to-market front but clearly close collaboration is the only path to success for the satellite-to-cell market.”
Satellite-to-cell will no doubt be a topic in the Opening General Session on Tuesday, with big Geostationary (GEO) operators Eutelsat, Viasat, and Globalstar. Viasat has its deal for Inmarsat and the operator’s L-band spectrum could have implications for the direct-to-device market, and CEO Mark Dankberg has called for industry policy discussions on the issue.
And Globalstar CEO David Kagan will be a highly anticipated guest on the OGS, as Globalstar’s deal to provide the satellite backbone for Apple’s direct-to-device service made headlines in 2022. Globalstar is allocating 85 percent of its current and future network capacity to support the services and ordered 17 new satellites from MDA to upgrade its infrastructure.
Apple rolled out the emergency messaging service in 2022 on the iPhone 14 and it is already saving lives. By working with Globalstar’s established network already in orbit, Apple had to design and build custom components and specific software and algorithms so that iPhone 14 antennas can connect to the unique frequencies of satellites. The technical capabilities required to make this connection happen, from a satellite in space to a handheld device are no small feat. Apple is recognized for this as a nominee for Satellite Technology of the Year.
Experts will dig more into the technology issues with this type of service in the Tuesday panel, “How a Cell Tower in Space Connects to the Cell Phone in Your Pocket.” This session aims to clear up the mystery surrounding how these direct space-to-cell connections work, and features ground tech expert Whitney Lohmeyer along with speakers from Lynk, Omnispace, Kratos, and Comtech.
Spectrum is just as much of a debate with this topic as technology. Some operators like Globalstar and Iridium are using their mobile satellite services spectrum, and others like SpaceX and AST SpaceMobile plan to use cellular spectrum for the service. All of this is possible because satellite was included in the 5G standard with 3GPP Release 17.
Spectrum experts from EchoStar, Ericsson, and MITRE Labs will look at progress toward interoperability between terrestrial networks and LEO, MEO, and GEO satellites to enhance 4G and 5G services in the Wednesday panel, “The Collaborative Effort to Integrate Satellite Systems with 3GPP Mobile Networks.”
This spectrum discussion could be especially pertinent, as the Federal Communications Commission recently released a notice of proposed rulemaking to facilitate integrating satellite and terrestrial networks to give satellite operators authorization to operate satellites using terrestrial spectrum, and will address the issue on March 16.
While satellite-to-cell communication was long relegated to specialized satellite phones, advances in standards and technology have made it a reality, and the number of partnerships in the works indicate this is a market that will be evolving for years to come. VS