There’s been a lot of talk about satellite connectivity lately, with companies like Apple, T-Mobile, and even Huawei boasting the technology in their latest phones and upcoming plans. But what does this mean for consumers and carriers, and should we care?
Despite the different ways companies approach this mode of connectivity, analysts expect direct satellite connectivity to become more prevalent in consumer smartphones. And even with some already beating others, analysts predict that it may be some time before we can take advantage of the technology’s full scope.
Preparing for launch
As it stands, there are a few major players in the race for satellite connectivity. With Apple’s marketing prowess and loyal customer base, iPhone 14 It represents a huge boost in technology sharing as one of the first consumer-grade smartphones to be launched with this feature. However, I say “one of the first” because Huawei launched its latest flagship Mate 50 series with satellite connectivity just days before the Apple event.
And while both are fairly exclusive features, Apple SOS emergency via satellite (Opens in a new tab) The feature is exclusive to the iPhone 14 in North America (for now at least), and Huawei is using China’s BeiDou satellite network to work. Not only that, but some limitations with each app can prevent them from living up to the hype.
On the other hand, T-Mobile and SpaceX have come together in a partnership and are taking a different approach. The companies announced in August a plan to use new Starlink satellites to provide basic smartphone coverage in areas known as dead zones. According to the companies, this should work on almost any smartphone out there because the companies plan to use the mid-band spectrum already supported by devices on the carrier’s network. Not only that, but T-Mobile and SpaceX are inviting global carriers to join in.
And the T-Mobile/SpaceX partnership is just one example. Other carriers have also partnered with satellite companies in an effort to expand the service. Verizon plans (Opens in a new tab) To use Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellites to support 4G LTE/5G towers and expand service in rural areas. AT&T and other global carriers are also somewhat involved in AST SpaceMobile, which just launched BlueWalker 3 test satellite Plan to take advantage of direct connections to the smartphone.
Google even got in on the sound of it saying that it is working to bring support for direct satellite calling in Android 14, which is expected to launch in the second half of 2023.
It’s hard to think of user experiences for phones that can connect to satellites. When we launched the G1 in 2008, getting 3G + Wifi was an extension. We are now designing for satellites. Fabulous! Excited to support our partners enabling all of this in the next version of Android!September 1, 2022
It’s not clear exactly what Android 14 is built for, but it will likely help enable seamless smartphone connectivity and, with any luck, even enable RCS capabilities when connecting to satellites.
Why is this so important?
Smartphones and mobile networks keep getting better every year. However, traditional wireless networks still struggle to reach every nook and cranny where service can be vital to users, particularly in the United States. Imagine if you were on a walk and got injured or lost and needed help. You’re pretty lucky if you don’t have cellular service, and that’s what these companies hope to address by allowing smartphones to take advantage of satellites.
Now, you can ask for help,” Elon Musk said while announcing the T-Mobile and SpaceX partnership. “The thing that I think is really profound about what we’re announcing today is that it’s going to save lives.”
That’s why Apple is pushing the technology in its latest smartphones, says Neil Shah, vice president of research at Counterpoint Research. “Apple should analyze its Apple Watch and iPhone premium user base on the percentage of users who travel to remote areas or take the watch to extreme outdoor activities and have poor or patchy coverage or dead areas.”
However, the biggest advantage can be in rural areas where coverage is spotty and often non-existent, even in the best US carriers. Chris Weddell of Android Central wrote how the T-Mobile/SpaceX ad makes him optimistic in his often-overlooked area of Kansas.
He’s already used Starlink for internet and T-Mobile for wireless, and he says the carrier seems to be making the most of effort in addressing connectivity issues. And while he questions how well this will work, the partnership appears to be a match made in heaven for consumers like him.
“While I know the chances of this service living up to the hype are slim, I’m still excited about it,” Wedel wrote. “The idea that my or my family would not be trapped by the side of the road with no way to contact someone could be a thing of the past is a wonderful idea.”
He should be skeptical. T-Mobile and SpaceX have gained a lot of hype for satellite communication, but we’re still a long way from making it happen. T-Mobile doesn’t plan to start testing until the end of 2023, assuming everything goes as planned with its Starlink V2 satellites, which SpaceX hopes to launch sometime next year. In addition, there is the issue of the FCC’s authorization even to use satellites with broad spectrum. AST SpaceMobile, for example, was granted Relatively limited license to test in the United States.
As noted before, current applications are indeed limited, a fact echoed by Bill Hu, Principal Analyst at 556 Ventures. “In Apple’s introduction to the Globalstar-based service, it was set up with a limited set of capabilities, using pre-written questions for the user and the like from the user,” explains Ho. “This service handles when there is no ground connection and a terrible scenario. Globalstar spectrum is not set up for voice and a lot of data.”
Huawei’s solution is similarly limited, and while it does allow users to send text messages, it appears that it does not support receiving text messages.
Ho suggests that T-Mobile apps seem to have better prospects because of how broad the proposal is. “Clip to T-Mobile – Starlink service description is similar in capacity but slightly better, using part of the T-Mobile PCS spectrum suite.”
Shah also points out how easy it is to access T-Mobile’s satellite communication solutions, at least in theory. “In the case of T-Mobile, most 5G phones with modems support this, however, here SpaceX uses the mid-band spectrum from T-mobile to provide connectivity in the dead zones. So all the phone has to do is hear the transmitted signal and pick it up on broadband. specific modem supported.
However, Ho cautions, we won’t know how well it works until T-Mobile provides its test data. So, while the partnership looks attractive, it is likely that consumers will have to balance their expectations, at least for the time being.
But Shah points out that the groundwork for this type of connection has already been laid. This is thanks to the improved satellite communication support in the future 3GPP version 18 As part of the next version of the 5G standard. In addition, Qualcomm Snapdragon X65 modem, Found in iPhone 14 And many of the best Android phones, also support the n53 band that Globalstar is using to help Apple bring the new Emergency SOS feature.
In fact, a recent report indicates that Apple acquires most of the Globalstar network Just to have its direct connection to satellites away from Earth, so to speak.
Who is paying for this?
When it comes to cost, companies have made it clear that they plan to pass this on to consumers, but not all at once and not for everyone. Apple’s Emergency Satellite SOS will be free for two years when it launches in November, although no one knows what will happen next.
T-Mobile says it does not plan to charge subscribers for its “most popular plan,” the codename for its most expensive plan. Those with cheaper rate plans are more likely to pay a fee.
Ho notes that this is likely due to technical hurdles and investments to make it happen. “This is really a space race to roll out the required number of satellites to meet the specific use case. To be able to meet coverage/communication, many satellites or a constellation will have to do the heavy communication lift.” He says that creating a constellation needs capital, and therefore more resources (read: wireless carriers) to help with the cause. “That’s why at the Starlink/T-Mobile event, Musk and Sievert appealed to other global carriers to join them.”
In fact, Musk commented on some technical aspects of doing something like this during the announcement.
“In order to make this work, you have to really have, as you might expect, very large ears. Very large satellite antennas and powerful antennas, and you need a lot of satellites.”
Shah explains that carriers and OEMs can pass it on as a “premium feature” to help monetize satellite connectivity while it’s still relatively new. In a sense, they can take advantage of the need for this kind of feature by charging them extra fees. “So the value proposition is huge and akin to paying for insurance — it feels like a cost unless you need it and it’s a lifesaver and it’s worth it. On top of that, there’s also a cost associated with it because somebody has to pay for the satellite the companies that provide that service spend. Billions of dollars on these satellites.”
However, he and Shah expect direct satellite communication to become more widespread by the end of the decade. If that happens, it could lower costs to consumers and eventually become a standard offering for carriers. But for now, it is consumers who are paying for this “life-saving” feature. “Nevertheless, I think some carriers and OEMs will take a route of offering it as a free service to lure users into it and monetize parts,” Shah adds.
This is only the beginning
So, while direct satellite connectivity is still a new feature in consumer smartphones, there is still a lot of potential for growth, especially as more carriers join in.
“But part of the space race is differentiating the service (i.e. user experience – speed and response time),” Ho notes, noting that it is up to both carriers and OEMs to get this work done smoothly. “This is a function of hardware and software.”
But while T-Mobile and SpaceX haven’t yet taken off with their new Starlink V2 satellites, they already have plans to expand beyond simple text messaging and expand to more powerful connections like voice and data, giving consumers more choices when they’re in outside the typical cellular range.
Fortunately, there are already a lot of players out there trying to make it happen. For companies like AST SpaceMobile, bringing mobile broadband to everyone is the ultimate goal, CEO Abel Avellan explained.
Avelan’s Monument in recent interview, adding that 50% of the world’s population does not have cellular broadband. He says he wants to change this and that his mission is “to resolve – no matter where you are – you will have 5G speeds.”
So, Apple may have been among the first to get into space with the iPhone 14, but if watching “For All of Mankind” on Apple TV+ taught me anything, being first isn’t everything.
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