Industry Leaders Analyze the Satellite-Cellular Convergence
March 14, 2023
Satellite industry executives are eager to partner with mobile network operators (MNOs), but they disagree on the timing of the opportunities those partnerships will represent. Some see significant near-term potential in direct-to-device connectivity, while others think backhaul remains the primary service satellites can offer mobile networks for now.
Executives debated the convergence opportunity at SATELLITE 2023 on Monday, March 13, during a panel moderated by Jason Nelson, vice president of partnerships and development at the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA), which represents cell tower companies and mobile network operators.
Matt Desch, CEO of Iridium, predicted that converged networks will roll out over the next 15 years. He laughed at analyst projections of the number of connections Iridium’s partnership with mobile chipmaker Qualcomm will enable in the near future, saying his company had provided no assumptions to the analysts modeling these forecasts. The industry is “way overblown in terms of expectations,” he said.
Charles Miller, CEO of Lynk, said his company will earn revenue from direct-to-device connections for text messaging this year. Lynk’s technology already “works with every mobile phone on the planet,” he said, adding that Lynk has commercial contracts in 41 countries and is testing in 19 countries.
“This is happening now,” Miller said. “If you have a timeline of doing this in 10 to 15 years, you are going to miss the boat.”
Miller argued that Lynk is changing the economics of direct-to-device connectivity by producing satellites that cost less than $200,000 to build. Three Lynk satellites are operating now, and Miller predicted 1,000 will be in orbit by 2025.
Jonathan Hofeller, vice president of Starlink commercial sales at SpaceX, said it’s not currently possible to forecast the size of the direct-to-device market.
“We are definitely wrong; we just don’t know how wrong we are,” he said. Hofeller added that SpaceX should be ready to meet the market as it develops because the company is able to iterate quickly and learn from its experiences, as SpaceX has already launched more than 4,000 satellites.
Don Clausen, the new CEO of ST Engineering iDirect, predicted that the size and success of the direct-to-device market will depend on standards, and said his company is actively engaged with the 3GPP. “We have to start with a standard and get all the MNOs and MSOs to agree to it,” he said. Clausen said standards will facilitate interoperability between cell phones and satellites so that mobile subscribers can roam seamlessly from one network to another. He added standards also have an important role to play in creating a better experience for mobile subscribers by supporting the use of satellite backhaul.
Direct-to-device may be the buzz, but backhaul is still the biz, according to Clausen and Hofeller. Clausen said satellite backhaul will suffice for many connectivity needs in the mobile industry. He gave the example of a cruise ship, noting that while a direct-to-device connection could be possible, satellite backhaul would give the passengers the connectivity they need.
Iridium’s Desch noted that the connection of mobile phones to satellites can be achieved primarily through technology located in mobile devices, in mobile networks or in satellite networks. Mobile devices are gaining satellite connectivity as Apple, Qualcomm, and MediaTek are all making chips to enable phones to connect to satellite spectrum bands, he said.
Another approach will be using satellite spectrum for new, standards-based networks that support mobile phones and other mobile devices as well. “We think that satellites should connect to everything, everywhere in the world, and we want to be the leading network to do that,” Desch said. Later during the panel, he noted a lack of investment in satellite-based networks for mobile devices and said these will not be available in the near future. “That is nirvana, but it’s 5 to 10 years away."
MNOs can also use satellites to extend their own networks, Desch said. He described the work that Lynk, SpaceX, and AST Space Mobile are doing with MNOs as “relay in space” and predicted this approach will “roll out slowly and be regional.” He said one advantage here is that “no change is needed to phones and no regulatory approval is needed.”
The panelists agreed that MNOs will contribute spectrum to evolving mobile-satellite partnerships, and most importantly they will contribute subscribers. Clausen said MNOs have another very important asset that the satellite industry needs.
“MNOs can help us change our culture as an industry,” Clausen said.” They have learned how to work together and serve their customers. … We need them to bring that culture to the satellite industry so we can all work together and agree on a standards-based solution.” VS