SEOUL, South Korea — Samsung Electronics said Feb. 23 it had secured a new standardized 5G non-terrestrial network (NTN) modem that enables direct smartphone-satellite communications in locations where there is no cellular network connectivity.

Samsung plans to integrate this modem into its own Exynos chip, which is used in many Samsung smartphones, except for the current flagship device, the Samsung Galaxy S23. This will “accelerate the commercialization of 5G satellite communications and pave the way for the 6G-driven Internet of Everything (IoE) era,” the Korean tech giant said in a statement.

“This milestone builds on our rich legacy in wireless communications technologies, following the introduction of the industry’s first commercial 4G LTE modem in 2009 and the industry’s first 5G modem in 2018,” said Kim Min-goo, Samsung vice president of communication processor development, in the statement. “Samsung aims to take the lead in advancing hybrid terrestrial-NTN communications ecosystems around the world in preparation for the arrival of 6G.”

The statement focused largely on explaining technologies applied and the modem’s function — but nothing about satellites that are another essential infrastructure for off-grid connectivity.

This illustration shows how NTN modems work.

Samsung is the latest smartphone maker jumping on the direct-to-cell bandwagon. 

Apple launched direct phone-satellite connectivity in September, relying on Globalstar’s satellite network to provide emergency communications where cellular service is unavailable. Apple first made this technology available in the United States and Canada, expanding it later to France, Germany, Ireland, and the U.K.

China’s Huawei is another smartphone maker that has joined the race, leveraging China’s space-based Beidou navigation constellation.

Satellite operators don’t miss out on this. In August 2022, SpaceX unveiled plans to provide direct-to-cell services for emergency assistance and beyond in partnership with U.S. mobile operator T-Mobile. U.S.-based startups Lynk Global and AST SpaceMobile have a similar direct-to-cell strategy. 

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.

In January, chipmaker Qualcomm announced a partnership with Iridium to bring satellite communication to Android phones powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2.

Park Si-soo covers space industries in South Korea, Japan and other Asian countries. Park worked at The Korea Times — South Korea's leading English language newspaper — from 2007 to 2020. He earned a master’s degree in science journalism from Korea...