TAMPA, Fla. — Executives with plans to connect satellites directly to smartphones sparred at the SmallSat Symposium Feb. 7 over which spectrum strategy will lead to success in this emerging market.

At one end of the discussion, satellite operators such as Iridium Communications seek to use their existing spectrum resources to connect with upgraded smartphone models.

On the other, companies including Lynk Global are developing constellations from scratch that would use frequencies from cellular partners to reach the billions of smartphones already in consumer pockets.

Each strategy has pros and cons, and companies on the SmallSat Symposium’s direct-to-device panel in Mountain View, California, touted various nuances for their specific approach.

For Coral Faradjian, Iridium’s director of legal and regulatory, using spectrum already approved to be beamed from space to the ground significantly decreases the time it takes to launch commercially.

By leveraging an existing constellation of 66 satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) in partnership with U.S. chipmaker Qualcomm, Iridium expects its technology to be rolled out on new Android smartphones in the second half of this year. 

Iridium expects early global services to include emergency messaging for phone users outside of cellular networks, similar to the capability Apple launched on Globalstar’s LEO network in November for its latest iPhone — currently covering the U.S., Canada, and parts of Europe.

In partnership with Taiwanese chipmaker MediaTek, British handset maker Bullit also plans to release a smartphone this year that could send and receive texts globally via existing satellites in geostationary orbit.

Although there is “incredible value in the innovation that smaller entities bring,” Faradjian said Apple, Qualcomm, and MediaTek allied with existing network providers “purely because this is a marathon.”

She said “teaching yourself how to swim once the event has started, while your competitors are completing those events, and moving on to the next gate in the cycle, is going to be incredibly challenging.”

Startups face challenges to raise money for their constellations this year, she added, “because the business sell is going to be harder and harder when you’re up against comments like … Qualcomm, MediaTek, Apple are off the market.”

George Giagtzoglou, vice president of strategy at Omnispace, outlined plans during the panel to deploy satellites using spectrum rights acquired from defunct operator ICO Global for a direct-to-smartphone service.

He said even SpaceX, which has plans to use cellular spectrum from T-Mobile to provide direct-to-smartphone services in the United States, is seeking satellite spectrum to support ambitions in this market.

However, not all mobile users can afford the latest handset models to remain connected beyond the reach of cell towers, Lynk co-founder and chief technology officer Tyghe Speide said.

Lynk currently has three satellites in LEO as it works on a ground station and the regulatory milestones in the way of launching initial messaging services from April.

While Iridium and Globalstar are currently in a better position to offer lower-latency direct-to-smartphone services requiring dense satellite coverage, such as voice, Speidel argued that handsets are still the missing piece of the puzzle in their business plans.

“We’re building a system that’s backward compatible with all five billion phones,” he said. 

“That’s incredibly powerful. All these other new phones, not only will they be more expensive, but they have to get made and they have to get sent out into the market — and I think it’s unclear who’s going to really buy those and what their price sensitivity will be.”

Despite the launch of satellite-enabled iPhone 14 models, Apple’s quarterly iPhone sales declined for the first time since 2020 for the three months to the end of December as production issues weighed on the company.

Speidel also does not believe Lynk and others looking to repurpose cellular spectrum for use in space will run into any regulatory issues down the line.

“I mean, what’s a couple hundred kilometers among friends when it’s … still a cell tower” in space, he said, adding that regulators have “been very supportive” of Lynk’s plans and analysis showing they do not interfere with other networks.

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...