TAMPA, Fla. — Europe has given Luxembourg’s OQ Technology a contract to study ways to connect unmodified smartphones from its low Earth orbit constellation, which currently provides narrowband connectivity for remote Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

Luxembourg’s government is providing an undisclosed amount of funding for the six-month feasibility contract, OQ Technology CEO Omar Qaise said Feb. 7. Such contracts are typically below $1 million in value.

The project officially kicked off Jan. 24 and will study upgrades the company’s payload and software would need to reach phones already out in the market.

“We should lay down the plan for a following in-orbit demonstration mission,” Qaise told SpaceNews via email.

The eight 6U cubesats OQ Technology already has in low Earth orbit — plus another two slated to launch on a Falcon 9 rideshare mission in March — can connect directly to off-the-shelf IoT devices and machines for tracking and monitoring services.

However, reaching standard smartphones requires more satellite power, in addition to managing the Doppler effect, which becomes more of an issue for services moving beyond messages to include images and voice.

Existing OQ Technology satellites can use all the standard narrowband spectrum bands assigned to space-based networks, according to Qaise, and one of the areas up for study is the use of radio frequencies from a terrestrial mobile network operator partner.

Using spectrum from terrestrial partners is key to plans underway by SpaceX, Lynk Global, and AST SpaceMobile to provide direct-to-smartphone services. 

Depending on the outcome of the feasibility study and OQ Technology’s ability to raise funds for the upgrades, Qaise said he anticipates deploying a satellite or a hosted payload with a direct-to-smartphone capability within two years.

“We also want to observe the other players and validate the market and technology approaches,” he added.

He said developing a capability to connect directly to phones was always part of OQ Technology’s long-term strategy, although the IoT market remains its main priority.

“Other satellite companies went directly to the broadband and direct to mobile route which requires heavy investment,” Qaise said, “our long term strategy has been always to start with 

IoT, build the knowledge and network and then progress to the next steps of direct to mobile phone.”

Terrestrial partnerships come with risks

Teaming up with mobile network partners could quickly give a satellite operator a critical mass of subscribers to fund the service, direct-to-smartphone executives said during the SmallSat Symposium Feb. 7 in Mountain View, California.

Getting access to millions of customers already subscribed to a mobile network is important because direct-to-smartphone operators are looking at just $1 average revenue per user (ARPU) in some of the world’s poorest regions, said Jaume Sanpera, CEO and founder of Spain’s Sateliot. 

Sateliot plans to deploy its first commercial satellites this year for an IoT network that, similar to OQ Technology, would also be upgraded later for direct-to-smartphone services.

According to Skylo, which has developed technology enabling phones to connect with geostationary satellites using radio waves already assigned to space-based operators, beaming terrestrial frequencies from orbit creates significant interference risk.

“I think it’s a very risky thing to be using large volumes of devices for a purpose which they were not necessarily meant to be used originally,” said Andrew Nuttall, Skylo Technologies cofounder and chief technology officer.

Exclusion zones could help manage interference risk, but would limit the appeal for potential direct-to-smartphone users.

Although Lynk Global is providing early services with local mobile operator partners in parts of more than seven countries, the satellite operator has yet to book revenues.

Lynk Global, SpaceX, and AST SpaceMobile are eagerly waiting for a regulatory framework from the Federal Communications Commission that would pave the way for direct-to-device clearances in the United States, and guide other administrations.

Mindel De La Torre, chief regulatory and international strategy officer for Omnispace, said the direct-to-smartphone challenger faces significant interference if SpaceX is allowed to use T-Mobile spectrum. Credit: Smallsat Symposium webcast.

The stakes are high for the shape of the emerging market, said Mindel De La Torre, chief regulatory and international strategy officer for Omnispace, which hopes to use its S-band satellite spectrum to help mobile operators plug gaps in their terrestrial networks.

She said SpaceX’s plans to use terrestrial spectrum from T-Mobile for a direct-to-smartphone service would derail Omnispace’s plans in the United States.

“If they’re allowed to do what they’re trying to do, we will be suffering interference tens of thousands of [kilometers] away,” she said.

SpaceX was recently granted a temporary license from the Federal Communications Commission to its test direct-to-smartphone in the United States and study the potential for interference.

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...