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In just over 12 months, direct satellite-to-mobile communications have gone from a science fiction pipe dream to a real-world prospect.
Apple and T-Mobile are implementing separate schemes with Globalstar and SpaceX, respectively, to allow customers to connect to signals sent from space. Amazon prepares for multiple releases of its constellation of Project Kuiper low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.
Startups like AST SpaceMobile and Lynx Global have signed satellite-to-cell phone deals with multiple mobile network operators (MNOs) around the world, even before the official launch of the spacecraft that will enable these services.
Meanwhile, Google is working on its own software project that will speed up communications between terrestrial networks and orbiting satellites. In September, Google launched a startup called Aalyria to work on network orchestration software that connects systems on the ground with those deployed on planes and in space.
Extension of the emergency scope
Most of these early space communications projects will not provide high-speed broadband links from the stratosphere. Rather, they will provide low-bandwidth connectivity that is suitable for emergency calling and texting in the wild, where there is no terrestrial cellular network.
Despite the wishes of some consumers for direct satellite-to-mobile communications for personal cellular purposes, studies show that there is a need to provide emergency connectivity. For example, T-Mobile claims that almost 20% of the United States is unreachable by traditional wireless networks. That percentage ignores many countries around the world that are not as well served by wireless services. It also ignores the fact that more than 70% of the Earth is covered by ocean, areas that cannot be served by standard cellular networks.
Only satellites can serve the last mile, especially when that last mile is far out in the Atlantic Ocean.
Phil Solis, analyst and director of smartphone connectivity and semiconductor research at IDC, told the EE Times that so far, LEO satellites are being used for “high-speed satellite broadband services for fixed stations and portable stations.” ie RVs, rather than direct cell phones. service said that Low Power Wide Area Satellite Networks (LPWAN) for IoT Applications that use network technologies such as LoRaWAN are also starting to arrive.
SOS satellite connectivity is now available on iPhone 14 models, thanks to the Globalstar deal. T-Mobile plans to launch its LEO connectivity program with SpaceX in 2023. Direct communication between satellites and mobile phones is already a reality.
“This is not intended to replicate coverage yet from cellular base stations,” Solis said. “Its purpose is to provide emergency connectivity and text messaging capability to communicate with people from anywhere.”
or as spacex CEO Elon Musk said at the SpaceX/T-Mobile launch event in late August: “It means there are no dead zones anywhere in the world for your cell phone.”
“This solves the deadlock issues,” Solis said. “There are countries where there is a lot of tourism around hiking and climbing. Many of these countries have been looking for solutions to help people make emergency calls – this is the answer.”
Initially, a direct satellite service can only deliver slow data speeds and allow simple calls and texts, Solís added. However, this could be a lifesaver if you’re trying to contact emergency services in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, located in central Idaho, the largest federal neighborhood in the lower 48.
How does direct satellite to mobile work?
So how does direct satellite to mobile service really work? First, it’s important to know that, depending on the carrier, direct satellite-to-mobile services will work differently.
Apple’s space scheme, called “Emergency SOS via Satellite,” uses Globalstar’s network of satellites to function. The service rules out a bulky external antenna attached to the iPhone 14 to link to the satellite.
“Instead of doing that and ruining the aesthetics of the device, they kept the antenna inside the device at the top edge,” Solis said. “Without the external antenna, the signal is much weaker, especially if that antenna is not in front of the satellite.”
To address this, Apple has included a guide on how to connect to Globalstar satellites with the iPhone 14. “You have to have the top of the phone facing up to send the message,” Solis said. “The guidance also approximates where one of the satellites passes, as it is always a known function and directs the user to point the phone at the satellite.”
Leonard Lee, a contributing analyst at Acceleration Economy, told the EE Times that “a special antenna design would be the most critical element in making a satellite-to-smartphone feasible.” He added that the teardown reports will reveal “whether there is a special chip separate from the Qualcomm X65 modem that currently supports Globalstar’s Band 53 spectrum or the 3GPP-approved n53.”
Meanwhile, the SpaceX and T-Mobile deal will be based on the second-generation LEO satellites that SpaceX will launch for its Starlink constellation. The company is targeting next year.
“Second-generation Starlink satellites will be able to broadcast directly to cell phones,” CEO Musk said at the SpaceX/T-Mobile launch event. He said that the second generation satellites have large and powerful antennasas well as complicated software to pick up and process signals from T-Mobile phones on the ground.
“We think they are the most advanced phased array antennas in the world,” Musk said. The companies have only tested the scheme in the lab so far. They won’t be able to legitimately test it until SpaceX begins launching the nearly 30,000 second-generation LEO satellites that will make up its next-generation swarm in 2023.
However, this plan still needs to be approved by the FCC. T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert is confident it will take off. He said the Starlink satellites will connect to most T-Mobile phones through “a portion of the mid-band PCS spectrum.”
“We think we’ll go into beta as early as the end of next year,” he said.
“In our most popular plans, we’re going to go ahead and include this for free,” Sievert said of T-Mobile’s vision, a plan that will deal a big blow to expensive specialty plans and satellite phones.
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