Ligado's SkyTerra-1 satellite was launched in 2010 and entered service in 2011. Credit: Ligado Networks

TAMPA, Fla. — Viasat said March 2 it is partnering with Ligado Networks to break into the emerging market for providing satellite services directly to consumer smartphones and other devices.

While Viasat is best known for satellites that provide broadband in Ka-band spectrum, the operator has used L-band from Ligado’s SkyTerra-1 geostationary satellite since 2014 to deliver less bandwidth-heavy services over North America. 

These mobile satellite services include connectivity for monitoring and tracking Internet of Things (IoT) devices and other machines requiring external antennas.

By also partnering with San Francisco-based venture Skylo on SkyTerra-1, which has developed technology enabling standard consumer devices to connect with geostationary satellites, the operators plan to expand these services across the “consumer smartphone, automotive, and defense” markets.

“We are planning to support services in the coming months,” a Viasat spokesperson told SpaceNews

“The SkyTerra MSS satellite is in service and ready to go, as is the Skylo platform. The next step is to integrate the two so that we can conduct testing over the air and to start supporting the service to ensure that the end-to-end solution is optimized and commercially ready to go.”

As with the Globalstar-enabled SOS feature Apple launched in November for its latest iPhone, and the capabilities other operators plan to launch in 2023, these services will initially be limited to low-bandwidth applications such as simple two-way messaging.

“The partners aim to bring smartphone messaging, wearable connectivity, and IoT services enabling cellular devices to connect seamlessly via satellite rapidly to some of the world’s most attractive markets,” Viasat, Ligado, and Skylo said in a joint news release.

“Longer term, we believe space-based networks can help scale these applications by substantially increasing network data rates and capacity; increasing service convenience and availability; and reducing costs,” Viasat CEO Mark Dankberg said in an accompanying statement.

The companies did not provide more details about the non-binding Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) they have signed with each other.

They do not appear to cover the MSAT-2 satellite that Ligado primarily operates as a backup for SkyTerra-1.

Ligado also has a third satellite called SkyTerra-2, a replica of SkyTerra-1, which is fully constructed but remains in storage for future commercial services.

Dankberg said Feb. 8 that Viasat is considering direct-to-smartphone services using satellites in geostationary and non-geostationary orbits.

The U.S.-based operator hopes the partnership with Ligado and Skylo will jumpstart its entry into the direct-to-device market as it seeks to expand its satellite connectivity services globally with its upcoming ViaSat-3 constellation and plans to buy Inmarsat of the United Kingdom.

Viasat is working through regulatory approvals to buy Inmarsat, which has a global constellation of geostationary L-band satellites and is considering plans for LEO.

British ruggedized handset maker Bullitt recently unveiled Android smartphones that can connect to L-band satellites operated by Inmarsat, and other geostationary operators, in partnership with Skylo and Taiwanese chipmaker MediaTek.

Inmarsat also leases L-band spectrum to Ligado. Inmarsat launched legal action against Ligado Dec. 15 over missed payments under this contract; however, it withdrew the lawsuit just weeks later for reasons it did not disclose.

Ligado’s payment issues came after plans to put its L-band spectrum into use terrestrially for a 5G network in the United States were put on hold following concerns it could disrupt GPS systems.

Ligado announced Feb. 23 it is pooling its satellite spectrum with Omnispace, a startup developing plans for a global non-geostationary connectivity constellation using S-band spectrum, to target direct-to-smartphone opportunities specifically. 

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...