On September 7, 2022, Apple announced that their new iPhone 14 would have satellite connectivity, thanks to a new deal with Globalstar.
Rumors to that effect had been swirling for a while, and the announcement had a huge impact. When the dust cleared, though, a question remained: what was actually being delivered, and how will this change the smartphone market? Will they really be “eliminating dead zones,” as so many of the promotional events promised?
The answer is yes, and no. The technology is real: satellite connections on a normal smartphone is possible. But there’s a reason Apple is using it solely for emergency distress messages. Its capabilities are likely to be sharply limited.
The Consumer Satellite Communications Market
Satellite phones have existed for years. Over time, they’ve gotten smaller, but they still have bulky and protruding antennas, making them look much like old cell phones from the 1990s, and they’ve suffered from high latency, low bandwidth, and high prices due to the need to connect to distant and expensive geosynchronous orbit (GEO) satellites. Due to the expense of the devices and services, they were mostly focused on military and commercial usage, with GEO-based satellite communication companies like Inmarsat focusing primarily on those markets for devices like the IsatPhone. While the Iridium network’s rise, fall, and rise again had caught attention, most satellite communications were still GEO based until recently.
The shift from GEO satellites to low Earth (LEO) orbit satellite constellations is creating enormous change. Whereas GEO satellites are distant, expensive and need to cover a vast amount of territory, LEO SmallSat constellations can have latency that’s comparable to Earth-based networking. They require a large number of SmallSats, but the actual satellites are far smaller, and the price to launch into LEO has rapidly declined over the last decade.
These advantages outweigh the drawbacks enough that LEO-based satellite communications have become one of the hottest sectors around. The high latency and low bandwidth devices with bulky antennas that connect to distant GEO satellites are having difficulty competing with newer devices that connect to LEO. That’s just as apparent in satellite telephony as everywhere else, as LEO-based telephony providers like Globalstar and Iridium have had a dramatic effect on the market.
The devices that link to LEO are still fairly big, however. While a Starlink dish is smaller than an old style satellite dish, it’s still clearly a satellite dish, as are both the traditional dish antennas and flat beamforming antennas produced by companies like Canada’s C-COM Communications. And even though LEO-based satphones like the various Iridium phones are smaller than previous models, they’re still pretty bulky, with large antennas that make them look like old walkie-talkies. Even Globalsat’s handheld SPOT X satellite messengers have those bulky antennas, and they’re text-only.
There are very small devices that can connect to satellites, but almost all of them are used for extremely low data-rate Internet of Things (IoT) applications. The devices that connect to the IoT satellites operated by Fleet Space and Swarm are very small, but their high latency and extremely low data rate makes them fundamentally unsuitable for consumer communications. They’re extremely useful for collecting information from, say, sensors connected to remote infrastructure, however.
Still, though smartphone-to-satellite connections do not use the technology used in these sensors, they do provide a useful guideline as to what satellite-based smartphone telephony will actually be like, especially considering Globalsat has similar devices intended for IoT asset tracking that uses their own LEO constellation. Even if they eliminate those bulky antennas, it will not be anything like a modern 5G connection. It will be very small, and very simple, and focused mostly on emergencies.
As of today, there have been four major announcements of smartphone-to-satellite communications: from Apple, from Lynk, from AST (with AT&T), and from T-Mobile (with Starlink).
The first, from Apple, is the one that’s getting the most attention right now. They’ve announced that their new iPhone 14 has a Qualcomm x65 modem that is able to communicate with Globalstar’s constellation using the same n53 band that is used in Globalstar’s other devices. But, like with Globalstar’s consumer-focused devices, the communications will only be for emergencies. People who want to communicate with a satellite on the new iPhone are asked to point the smartphone at an available satellite, and are then prompted to choose between a small number of communication options to specify their specific emergency. There is no text message or calling functionality.
The second, from Lynk, is interesting in that it’s more ambitious. Lynk is launching their own satellite constellation that is intended to serve as a “cell tower in space.” (Lynk’s new satellites have even been called Tower 1 through Tower 4). Their release earlier this month about the FCC granting them a commercial license for “satellite-direct-to-standard-mobile-phone service” said that they have already “signed contracts with 15 mobile network operators (MNOs) in 36 countries representing over 240M mobile subscribers, and is actively testing in 10 countries.” It also points to how they are “the only company in the world to have successfully sent text messages to and from space via unmodified mobile devices.”
Their commercial service is slated to begin next year, providing Globalstar-style emergency communications and text messages. In order to actually provide satellite-based telephony, they’ll need to rapidly grow their constellation; and though an earlier release from Lynk said that their “‘rapid do-learn loop’ satellite design process” will allow them to “ramp up production to 200 satellites per month,” it is questionable as to whether producing and launch that many satellites that quickly is feasible for such a new company. If they can, their goal is to have a thousand-satellite constellation providing “continuous real-time service” by 2025, with an eventual planned constellation of 5000 satellites.
The third big story, and one that got the lion’s share of hype before the Apple event, was the August announcement of a deal between Starlink and T-Mobile to provide Starlink connectivity on T-Mobile phones using T-Mobile’s licensed spectrum. As noted in TechCrunch, T-Mobile’s Mike Sievert said at the announcement event with SpaceX head Elon Musk that “it’s a lot like putting a cellular tower in the sky, just a lot harder,” and that their approach is much like Lynk’s in that “your phone doesn’t really know it’s connecting for space. It’ll think it’s connected to a cell tower, because that phone is using industry standard technology communication protocols and it has the spectrum already built in.”
Musk said that it will be tremendously difficult; that it will require “the most advanced phased array antennas in the world.” So, even though Starlink has a large constellation already, they’ll still be only offering “text messages and possibly messaging apps” when the service goes live. The big question mark is that the service will be relying on Starlink’s second generation satellites, which are only slated to be deployed en masse once SpaceX finally rolls out its Starship launch vehicles. As Starship hasn’t even had an orbital test yet, the timing for this T-Mobile service is still up in the air.
And even when it’s up, the total bandwidth per cell zone will only be around 2-4 megabits per second; enough for text and perhaps messaging apps, but likely far too little for most data-based consumer applications in the 2020s.
Finally, there’s the deal between AST SpaceMobile and AT&T. Like with Lynk, AST was given permission by the FCC to test transmissions between satellites and smartphones using ordinary phones; and like with the T-Mobile deal, they’ll be using the providers’ dedicated spectrum, this time the spectrum set aside for AT&T. AST SpaceMobile has been making a number of these deals; they made a deal to test the service in Japan with Rakuten Mobile, as well as other global providers like Vodafone, Africell, UT Mobile, MUNI and others.
Beyond that, their promises and profile are much like Lynk: they’re a startup that is promising to provide some level of satellite connectivity to regular smartphones, though unlike Lynk they haven’t yet demonstrated the capacity to do so. AST plans a constellation of 243 satellites, rather than Lynk’s grandiose promise of thousands of satellites, so it is unlikely that they will be providing anything more than basic communications. They launched a test satellite, BlueWalker 3, earlier this month.
Northern Sky Research is estimating that deals like this will only accelerate, as a potentially $67 billion market forms.
Limited Capability in the Near-Term
Putting all these plans and announcements together, Apple and Globalstar’s emergency-only communications seems almost simplistic, but make sense for several reasons.
Lynk and AST’s plans are ambitious, and both companies are in a headlong race to find partners to make those plans happen. They’ve had some success, and the promise of satellite telephony from regular smartphones is compelling, but one can be forgiven for being doubtful regarding Lynk’s promise of having a thousand satellites in orbit by 2025 delivering high-speed Internet to regular phones. What they’re slated to provide when they launch (next year for both Lynk and AST) is what one already gets from satellite phones that connect to existing satellite networks: basic messaging and telephony, with SOS options in emergency situations.
As for T-Mobile and Starlink, it’s a logical extension of Starlink’s service, and SpaceX not only has a large constellation already but most of the infrastructure needed to build it out. It can increase T-Mobile’s competitiveness as well; their principal competitors (Verizon and AT&T) are connected to enormous communications megacorporations, so a partnership with a company with the profile of SpaceX makes a lot of sense. It makes sense from SpaceX’s point of view as well, as they can make the deal as a peer corporation that doesn’t need to manage a relationship with Verizon or AT&T’s parent companies.
The question mark is Starship, though. In fact, Starship may be required for all three companies to succeed; the only feasible way for Lynk and AST to launch all those satellites is (perhaps ironically) by exploiting Starship’s enormous lifting capacity. While Starship looks likely to have an orbital test by the end of November, it’s a question mark as to when Starship will be ready to support these huge constellation upgrades. And while the partnerships with mobile providers are delivering access to needed wireless spectrum bands to the satellite companies, regulatory conflicts related to both the constellations and the bands may delay or even block their plans.
Apple, instead, is taking a simpler and familiar approach: replicate the functionality of a standalone device (in this case Globalstar’s existing satellite emergency devices) on a smartphone. This has happened with everything from NFC payment cards to cameras to two-factor passcode devices, so it was only been a matter of time before it happened to satellite communicators.
In that respect, Globalstar’s ahead of the game. Competitors like Garmin could face a dramatic decline in the market for emergency satellite-based communicators, and while they may be able to make up for it by refocusing on the commercial and institutional/governmental market, that market is being heavily targeted by Starlink and other LEO constellation operators like OneWeb. Garmin may begin pivoting to focus on their core competency in GPS-based technology, including smartwatches, marine GPS and avionics. Some companies, like Zoleo, may have more trouble pivoting.
Globalstar, too, can focus on their core competencies. While their SPOT devices was and is well-regarded, Apple has unmatched brand equity. Assuming that future iPhones incorporate the SPOT X’s messaging functionality, Globalstar can focus on its satellite constellation and on maximizing the value of its partnership with Apple, as well as on IoT devices, and eventually retire the SPOT devices. They don’t even need Starship, as they have an existing relationship with SpaceX competitor Rocket Lab.
Canadian Effects and Market Opportunities
This partnership is also having a potentially big impact on Canada. Aside from the Apple and Globalstar deal delivering emergency satellite service in Canada, Canada is conspicuously absent in all of these announcements. Lynk and AST do not seem to have made any deals yet in Canada, and T-Mobile is an American operator.
Yet the Apple/Globalstar has had an impact on at least one Canadian space-focused company: MDA. In February, Globalstar announced that they chose MDA as the “prime contractor” to produce 17 satellites for their constellation, with an option for an additional nine satellites. At the time, Globalstar had said that they had a “potential customer” that will “reimburse Globalstar for 95% of the approved capital expenditures Globalstar makes in connection with the new satellites.”
This is important to MDA, and not just because it’s a CA$415 million contract that is likely to lead to additional work with Globalstar. As we remarked in our previous coverage, this is the first time that they’ve “won contracts as the prime contractor for satellite constellations other than the Canadian government RADARSAT Constellation Mission.” It will also develop their relationship with New Zealand-based Rocket Lab, who will be designing and manufacturing the satellite buses for assembly, integration, and testing at MDA.
MDA has in the past tried to build out a satellite systems value chain. The Globalstar and Rocket Lab deals could open up a larger opportunity, and point to a strategic shift in their satellite systems segment.
This situation may also signal opportunities across the whole industry. Starlink’s tremendous size and growth might have meant that other smaller operators (like Globalstar, AST and Lynk) could have been crowded out. With the exclusive deal between Starlink and T-Mobile, though, and the competition for partners by Lynk and AST, it’s unlikely that any one satellite constellation will become monopolistically dominant. Starlink may be big and impressive and carry tremendous brand cachet, but so does Verizon, and so does AT&T, and so does Apple. No single company will own the skies, just as no single company owns the spectrum.
It also shows room for smaller constellations like Globalstar’s in this competitive space. Lynk’s promises aside, satellite-to-smartphone communications will be focused on emergency and text communications for a while, and Apple has clearly determined that a smaller constellation like Globalstar’s is adequate for those needs. The AT&T/AST deal shows that mobile companies are paying close attention to this market, and are looking for constellations that can service their needs. Even if Lynk and AST are ultimately unsuccessful, the proof-of-concept that Lynk provided with their successful test will draw other companies into the market to succeed where they’ve failed, looking to make the same kind of deals with mobile phone companies to gain access to their slices of wireless spectrum.
This creates opportunities for Canadian firms. Even aside from MDA, there will be an ongoing market for satellite components from these companies. While SpaceX tends to build everything they can in-house, these other constellation-builders will not.
No matter what kind of phone you have, or what mobile network you use, it’s very likely that your smartphone will have the ability to connect to LEO satellites in the near future.