Jumping on the direct-to-cell bandwagon

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Former mobile dead zones could be teeming with life in coming years as more satellite operators consider jumping in to provide connectivity directly to standard phones.

The momentum behind this direct-to-cell capability has shifted into a higher gear following early product launches, big-name announcements, and the progress startups are making for their dedicated cell-compatible constellations.

After years of rumors, smartphone makers Apple and Huawei recently launched models capable of connecting to a partner’s satellites for emergency messaging services.

Apple’s iPhone 14 and Huawei’s new flagship Mate 50 series can facilitate limited SOS services beyond the reach of terrestrial cell towers — without a bulky handset antenna that usually accompanies satellite-compatible phones.

T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert (left) and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced plans for direct-to-cellphone satellite services at SpaceX’s Starbase test site in Texas. Credit: SpaceX webcast

In August, SpaceX unveiled plans to provide direct-to-cell services for emergency assistance and beyond in partnership with U.S. mobile operator T-Mobile.

These include text and picture messaging services available in the United States “as soon as late next year,” T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert said during an Aug. 25 event at SpaceX Starbase in Texas. Voice, video streaming and other high-bandwidth capabilities would come at an unspecified time after that.

While Apple is using Globalstar’s satellite spectrum and Huawei is leveraging China’s space-based Beidou navigation constellation, SpaceX would use T-Mobile’s terrestrial wireless frequencies to connect phones outside cellular networks.

Instead of broadcasting from cell towers, these frequencies would beam from upgraded Starlink satellites that SpaceX mostly uses to provide broadband services to fixed addresses.

U.S.-based startups Lynk Global and AST SpaceMobile have a similar direct-to-cell strategy.

They are busy forging alliances internationally to give their planned satellites access to mobile operator spectrum, which would have more reach from space to serve a telco’s customers where its terrestrial infrastructure cannot.

There are five billion smartphones in circulation today, and mobile dead zones are prevalent even in countries with widespread 5G networks. More than half a million square miles of the United States are untouched by terrestrial cell signals from any provider, according to T-Mobile.

It is a compelling opportunity for satellite operators that can monetize these mobile dead zones, and those looking to take advantage of the direct-to-cell hype.

Spanish startup Sateliot recently said satellite technology it is developing for small internet of things (IoT) devices could also be used to send and receive SMS messages from a regular handset.

While Sateliot CEO Jaume Sanpera says direct-to-cell was always part of its strategy, he said the venture decided to go public with the plan following a spike in interest for the capability.

The startup has enough funding to deploy its first five operational satellites next year to connect other devices in remote areas, Sanpera said, but needs around $100 million for a full network of 250 satellites to provide direct-to-cell services.

“We really believe this will be a huge push for our Series B,” he said, “because there is real big business on the direct to phone connectivity.”

Sateliot’s approach also relies on convincing smartphone makers to add a compatible chip into their designs so their handsets can connect to its proposed satellites.

WAITING IN THE WINGS

Globalstar rival Iridium has been working on direct-to-cell technology for years but remains tight-lipped about its plans.

Iridium CEO Matt Desch told World Satellite Business Week in Paris Sept. 12 that it will “be involved in a big way” but declined to disclose details about a partner it is working with under a development contract.

Iridium said in July its deal with this unnamed company is contingent upon successful technology development and a service provider agreement it expected to finalize before the end of this year.

Other established satellite operators are closely following the growing momentum in the direct-to-cell market.

“It’s something we’ve had our eye on for a while,” SES CEO Steve Collar said, because it is one of the areas that could enable the satellite industry to play a role in a much broader ecosystem.

“Clearly, there are big technical challenges,” Collar cautioned, “mainly just having a link that is powerful enough effectively to access a phone with a very poor performing antenna — relative to the antennas that we normally communicate with from space.”

It is also unclear whether the best strategy is to provide connectivity via mobile satellite spectrum (MSS) or terrestrial frequencies that have been assigned to mobile operators.

“As far as SES is concerned, right now and today, this is an opportunity rather than something that we’re concretely doing,” he said.

“We’re still doing our homework and figuring out where we can play and where we can add value.”

In May, SES obtained spectrum rights for 62 proposed satellites that were about to expire following a call for proposals from Luxembourg, where SES is based.

These spectrum rights cover satellites operating between 8,062 and 519 kilometers, much closer to Earth than the 20 broadband satellites SES has in medium Earth-orbit (MEO) at 8,063 kilometers.

SES also operates a fleet of satellites in geostationary orbit (GEO) for broadband and broadcast services.

Collar noted that the major direct-to-cell projects announced to date are in low Earth orbit (LEO), below 2,000 kilometers.

“One of the things that we’re looking at as we’re looking at possible architectures is, does that have to be the case? Could you do this from some combination of GEO and LEO, or LEO and MEO?”

Offering a direct-to-cell capability could also help SES play a part in Europe’s planned sovereign broadband constellation.

“We certainly haven’t made a decision that we would invest [in direct-to-cell services],” Collar said.

“It would be kind of a meaningful diversification for us, moving into a different part of the value chain in the industry, but we think there’s potential there, and we’re working hard.”

Intelsat, which operates a fleet of GEO satellites and has a distribution alliance with LEO broadband operator OneWeb, also has satellite spectrum filings in MEO that could be used for a direct-to-cell service.

“We’re partnering right off the bat with OneWeb to get that [non-geostationary orbit] capability into our network, but we’ve also been evaluating other opportunities internally,” Intelsat chief commercial officer Michael DeMarco said.

Intelsat has not specified its plans for MEO, and DeMarco said “anything that we come to market with would be complementary to the network that we have in place today.”

He said the operator is watching the direct-to-cell activity closely, and “we’ll see how our multi-orbit architecture … can evolve to potentially capture share” as the market shakes out.

Inmarsat is also “very much in the investigative stage,” said Barry French, the operator’s chief marketing and communications officer.

“Some of the things you’ve seen announced so far are pretty far in the future,” French said.

“There’s a lot of work to do between now and then — and the same is true for us,” he added, “but we do have this compelling L-band capability.”

While there are a lot of smartphones, handset makers and connectivity providers, he said there are few companies “who have the kind of global L-band spectrum coverage that we have. So we think we have a very clear asset that maybe others don’t.”

CAPABILITY EVOLUTION

While smartphone satellite connectivity first-movers Apple and Huawei are only planning basic services initially, albeit seemingly for free, they will likely add to the capability if the demand is there from consumers.

Apple has dedicated $450 million from its advanced manufacturing fund toward satellite infrastructure to support its SOS feature and is financing the majority of new Globalstar satellites that underpin the service.

Starting in November, an app pre-installed on iPhone 14s will help users find and keep locked onto a Globalstar satellite to access Apple’s emergency service.

The feature would enable users outside a cellular network, initially only in the United States and Canada, to give emergency responders information by selecting from a series of short text messages.

Under ideal conditions, Apple said these messages could take 15 seconds to send because of current bandwidth constraints and as long as three minutes in other cases.

Virginia-based Lynk, which looks to be next in line to start providing initial direct-to-cell services, aims to start by providing emergency alerts, text messaging, and connectivity for internet of things devices.

The startup secured regulatory approval Sept. 16 to operate its constellation globally after launching its first operational satellite in April.

Three more satellites are slated for deployment in December, which would be enough to enable users to send and receive text messages about four to eight times a day, depending on their latitude.

However, Lynk has not yet secured landing rights in any country where it plans to provide services.

Charles Miller, Lynk’s CEO, said its next step is to secure a commercial contract with a mobile operator in the United States. The two companies would then jointly seek permission from the Federal Communications Commission to serve U.S. customers.

Artist’s concept of a satellite in AST SpaceMobile’s planned global cellular broadband network. Credit: AST SpaceMobile

Lynk plans to deploy more than 50 satellites before the end of 2023 to increase satellite revisit times to every 15-30 minutes.

Texas-based AST expects to deploy its first operational satellites in late 2023. These will be much larger than Lynk’s pizza-boxed shaped satellites for providing higher-bandwidth 5G services.

At press time, AST was weeks away from unfurling the antenna on its BlueWalker 3 prototype following its launch Sept. 10. At 64-square-meters, it is the largest commercial antenna ever deployed to LEO.

AST, Lynk, and Starlink expect to connect phone users as seamlessly as they connect to cell towers through native device support.

Although T-Mobile’s Sievert said it is not ready to announce a product, he expects to include satellite-enabled coverage in the United States under the telco’s most popular mobile plans for free.

T-Mobile will likely charge a monthly service fee for customers that want to add the coverage to some of its cheaper mobile plans.

SpaceX and T-Mobile are searching for mobile operators internationally with suitable frequencies to forge reciprocal roaming alliances.

T-Mobile is providing 1.9 GHz spectrum in the United States under their partnership.

Curiously, SpaceX recently requested permission from the FCC to use the nearby 2 GHz spectrum band for MSS. This band is not used by terrestrial mobile operators, suggesting SpaceX might be planning to avoid other providers altogether to sell services directly to consumers.

Lynk and AST envisage various types of partnerships with mobile operators.

“When you’re out of coverage you can receive a text from your mobile network operator, and if you want to roam onto our network then you can click ‘yes’ and you can buy a day pass,” AST chief strategy officer Scott Wisniewski said. “Or you can sign up to a recurring ‘add-on’ for your monthly plan.”

Wisniewski said AST intends to provide an invisible layer of connectivity for consumers, leaving the consumer-facing business to the mobile operator.

“We bring the network and the mobile network operator brings the customers, the spectrum, and their marketing power,” he said, enabling AST “to leverage those things that they’ve already built.”

Miller said Lynk will also be a wholesale partner for mobile operators and will never go “direct to consumer.”

However, he said Lynk is still deciding whether to be a consumer-facing brand or just a provider of white label-enabling technologies to mobile carriers. “We have some ideas on this that we are not ready to share,” he said.

While customers would use the SMS texting platform already built into their phone for sending messages through Lynk’s network, he said the startup has developed an app called LynkCast to collect data broadcast from space. “LynkCast will be a service that allows everybody to get critical local information (weather, news) delivered directly to your phone, no matter where you are,” he said via email.

“For example, you are in a remote area? What is the weather prediction for the next several hours? The next several days? Is there a hurricane coming? A blizzard? Tornado conditions? Your life might depend on getting weather predictions.”

Both startups welcome the interest and activity their emerging market is receiving.

They say it is a market that will be big enough to support multiple players, giving mobile operators alternatives and differentiated services for their satellite-enabled needs.

Apple iPhone 14 users could still tap into AST’s planned network, Wisniewski said.

“Technology-wise, there’s not really a fundamental incompatibility,” he added. “The phone looks [for our satellite] if they’re in certain locations instead of looking for a tower, and if someone else has some other feature on a different frequency or a different app, you can do that without conflicting.”

It is ultimately up to the mobile operator. Just like how telcos “use multiple ground-based tower networks,” Miller said, “nothing stops them from using multiple satellite networks.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.