A space race to connect satellites to phones with Apple, SpaceX and AT&T

A space race to connect satellites to phones with Apple, SpaceX and AT&T

The race to provide high-speed internet from satellites is in full swing — but another, more ambitious competition, to connect directly from space to devices like smartphones, began in earnest earlier this year.

The potential untapped market – which stops at sending text through space, but extends beyond it – motivates the story of two strategies: those that put specialized antennas on phones, versus those that put high-powered antennas on the satellites themselves. For some companies, that means spending billions on what could end up being a losing approach.

“The satellite industry is a really good place to be — and if they can tap into connecting billions of smartphones — they can start talking about market sizes that were a lot bigger than they were able to handle before. Everything before was in the millions,” Caleb Henry said, Senior Analyst at boutique research firm Quilty Analytics, for CNBC.

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A group of projects and partners – from appleAnd the iridiumSpaceX, T-Mobile And the AT&T, among others – came to the fore in 2022, in various stages of development to connect directly to smartphones. Satellite communications have long been a dream come true, but huge, specialized, and usually expensive satellite phones have not gained much traction.

Now, the evolution of technology is renewing the race to perfect space communications, according to Patricia Cooper, Constellation consultancy and former SpaceX vice president for satellite government affairs.

One of the differences [from earlier generations] is the capability of current satellites in low Earth orbit, which means they may be able to deliver more than just a thin text, or almost as much as a pager service.”

Cross Technology

SpaceX this summer Declare a partnership It would allow T-Mobile users to send messages from places unreachable by ground cell towers, using SpaceX’s second generation of Starlink satellites.

Executive Director Elon Musk He said the larger, updated Starlink satellites will have wide antennas that can transmit directly to a mobile device, with T-Mobile hoping to eventually add satellite voice calls.

While SpaceX contains files Launched more than 3,000 first-generation satellites So far, adding a service directly to the phone would require thousands more.

The partnership is similar to the one you offered AST SpaceMobile. company last month Its second test satellite has been put into orbit And it has deals with mobile communications, including AT&TVodafone and Rakuten. satellite company Released to the public via SPAC Last year it raised nearly $600 million so far.

The AST network will consist of fewer satellites than the Starlink constellation, but still calls for approximately 250 deployments for global coverage.

Lynk Global’s special project also aims to provide a cellular tower in space from satellites, with plans for a constellation of several thousand within a few years. Lynk has raised about $25 million since its founding in 2017. It has put five experimental satellites into orbit so far.

The company announced that it sent “the world’s first text message from an orbiting satellite to an ordinary mobile phone on Earth” in early 2020.

And while some are building satellite networks, other major players are eyeing terrestrial innovations, with systems based on specialized telephone antennas.

apple – Leading provider of satellite smartphone communications to date, albeit with limited start-up ability – recently announced An emergency feature on iPhone 14 models that takes advantage of the technology. in partnership with Global StarThe feature allows users to send compressed text messages from iPhone 14s via satellite.

Apple is set to spend more than $400 million to tap into the majority of the Globalstar network and add more satellites to it.

iridium, a company that has been providing satellite communications services to specialized phones for a long time, and has not yet announced a partner for its direct-to-smartphone service. But CEO Matt Desch told CNBC last month at the 2022 Global Satellite Business Week conference that his company is “working on this opportunity.”

Iridium expects to have a contract with a smartphone partner by the end of 2022, with Desch saying that “our service will be day one globally” upon launch.

ways to go

Companies must overcome major technological and regulatory hurdles to bring these long-envisioned networks to market.

“All of the services so far have started with the minimum intensive service they can deliver – that’s text messaging,” noted Henry of Quilty Analytics. “The true certification of the level of service that each of these companies will be able to provide will ultimately depend on how many satellites they can launch, how powerful the satellites are, and how much spectrum they can access.”

Henry and Cooper said that regulatory uncertainty around these types of services will be a challenge for corporate networks. Cooper said telecommunications is a “heavily regulated field,” and “there aren’t a lot of scenarios where the rules are first set for a new technological innovation.”

She also emphasized the true scope of the market, and how profitable it can be, which remains to be seen.

“I don’t think we know how that will be paid for. We don’t know if the market will be determined by how much the cellular companies will pay the satellite companies to partner and invest [in constellation infrastructure]or whether it will be paid by consumers and it will add pennies to your bill and that will flow to the satellite companies,” Cooper said.

“Until we know that, we can’t know the size,” Cooper added.

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