For years, Fierce Wireless has been writing occasional stories about the convergence of wireless networks with satellite. But nothing much has ever really come of it — until 2022. This year, the concept of connecting regular cell phones with low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite broadband finally got more real.
Two companies were early in this game. Lynk Global and AST SpaceMobile were both founded in 2017.
In September this year, Lynk Global announced that it had received from the FCC the world’s first satellite-direct-to-phone license. The license enables Lynk to launch commercial services for its global constellation of satellites, which it says will pave the way for universal mobile connectivity.
According to Tony DeTora, Lynk’s VP of government affairs, the company has launched five satellites with experimental cell towers. And by the end of December, it will have launched three commercial-ready satellites.
All of the companies trying to create satellite-to-phone connectivity are also working with terrestrial mobile network operators (MNOs).
DeTora said, “We are currently working with our flagship MNO partners to integrate our systems so we can begin Lynk commercial service early next year.”
Lynk is testing on all seven continents. “This is possible due to the nature of our satellite orbit,” said DeTora. “Lynk’s satellite passes over each point on the Earth about twice per day. This naturally limits coverage for any one location, but it is highly predictable, which makes it highly useful. Three satellites will give us about six satellite passes daily, and we’ll quickly grow the constellation to provide hourly coverage, then continuous coverage.”
He said Lynk needs about 1,000 satellites for full continuous broadband coverage, which the company expects to reach in 2025. Then it will continue to add new satellites to increase coverage density until it reaches its full constellation size of about 5,000 satellites.
“Once we are fully deployed, we still plan an aggressive replacement schedule, to integrate the latest technology and ensure that we maintain a sustainable presence in LEO by de-orbiting older satellites,” said DeTora.
In November, AST SpaceMobile announced that it had successfully unfolded, while in orbit, the communications array for its test satellite, BlueWalker 3. AST SpaceMobile’s satellites are quite a bit larger than other companies’ satellites in the space-to-mobile arena, so they will be able to cover more area as they pass in LEO over the Earth.
The company expects to launch five more satellites in 2023.
AST is ultimately planning for a constellation of 168 satellites. The first 20 will be for equatorial coverage. The next 90 will provide substantial global coverage, and the final 58 will have MIMO antenna capabilities, which is important for its Japanese MNO customer Rakuten.
Scott Wisniewski, AST’s chief strategy officer, told Fierce Wireless that BlueWalker 3 is the largest-ever commercial communications array deployed in LEO. Now that it has been unfolded, the satellite spans 693 square feet in size and has a field-of-view on the Earth of 700 miles.
In terms of advancing its commercial aspirations, the company is working closely with Rakuten Mobile. And recently, the Japanese government granted Rakuten preliminary, experimental licenses to conduct mobile communication tests, using AST SpaceMobile’s BlueWalker 3.
SpaceX and T-Mobile
In August, SpaceX and T-Mobile surprised with an announcement that they are collaborating. SpaceX plans to launch new Starlink satellites that will be able to connect to existing T-Mobile phones.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stressed that a lot of this is about making sure people have the ability to connect when off the grid and out of terrestrial cell phone range. Even if all the cell towers were taken out in a disaster, the phones would still work due to the satellite connection.
The companies are starting with text messaging to assist people when off the grid and out of terrestrial cell phone range.
Apple and Globalstar
Finally, in September, Apple revealed plans to use Globalstar satellites to power a new service dubbed “Emergency SOS via Satellite.” The functionality has already been launched and is built into the new iPhone 14.
Emergency SOS via Satellite is a text message service to assist people who are in dire circumstances in remote areas with no regular cellular coverage.
Already, on December 1, the service is credited with rescuing a man who became stranded in snow in Alaska.
Apple’s Emergency Response Center worked with local search and rescue teams and the Northwest Arctic Borough Search and Rescue Coordinator to send out volunteer searchers directly to the GPS coordinates that were relayed to Apple using the emergency function, according to MacRumors.
Finally, Omnispace is a new entrant in the satellite-to-mobile category.
Omnispace’s Chief Commercial Officer Brian Pemberton said that what differentiates Omnispace is that from the beginning it has taken a standards-based approach. The company has been working with the 3GPP to operate its future satellite constellation in accordance with non-terrestrial network (NTN) specifications as defined by the 3GPP in its Release 17 for 5G.