WASHINGTON — Executives seeking new businesses from connecting satellites directly to standard smartphones are divided over how quickly this market could grow.

Regulatory challenges, potential spectrum interference, customer demand, and the need to fund and deploy constellations capable of voice and other high-bandwidth services are big question marks for this emerging market, according to Matt Desch, CEO of satellite operator Iridium Communications.

“This is an industry that’s going to take 15 years to roll out,” Desch said March 13 during a panel at the Satellite 2023 conference here.

Iridium recently announced a partnership with chipmaker Qualcomm to bring two-way messaging to Android smartphones and other devices slated for release in the second half of 2023.

Similar to SOS services Apple launched on its latest iPhone models in November via Globalstar’s constellation, direct-to-device services supported by Iridium would use existing satellites and spectrum already approved for mobile satellite services.

In another approach, companies such as Lynk Global are looking to develop constellations from scratch that would repurpose spectrum from mobile network operator partners.

Lynk currently has three satellites in low Earth orbit and is seeking funds to deploy 1,000 of them by 2025, which the Virginia-based startup has said would be enough for voice services near the equator.

“If you have a timeline of 10-15 years you’re going to miss the boat,” Lynk CEO Charles Miller said during the panel.

When SpaceX announced a partnership in August to use spectrum from mobile operator T-Mobile for direct-to-device services in the United States, the company said it could launch initial services starting with text messaging as early as 2024.

Jonathan Hofeller, vice president of commercial sales for SpaceX’s Starlink broadband constellation, declined to be pinned down on the timing of its direct-to-device plans, including when future higher-bandwidth services could be rolled out.

“We’re definitely wrong,” Hofeller said, “we just don’t know how wrong we are.” 

However, he said SpaceX expects to “learn a lot by doing — not necessarily by overanalyzing,” and by working closely with terrestrial wireless partners.

While these telcos “might take some convincing,” he said ultimately customers worldwide want the ability to use their mobile devices where there is little or no cellular coverage.

Switzerland-based mobile operator Salt announced March 1 that it is also working with Starlink on a direct-to-device service to extend the reach of its network.

Hofeller said SpaceX plans to start testing direct-to-smartphone services this year and expects to benefit from its ability to iterate and deploy satellites very quickly.

SpaceX has launched more than 4,000 satellites for Starlink and is currently building six satellites and thousands of user terminals a day for the constellation, he said.

The “V2 Mini” version of the Starlink satellite that SpaceX started launching in February also has “four times the capacity of our previous generation.”

SpaceX’s plans to deploy larger, more powerful Starlink satellites are tied to regulatory approval and successful tests of the Starship heavy launch vehicle it is developing at Boca Chica, Texas.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...