Canadian telecommunications giant Rogers has announced that they are going to be working with two different satellite companies to offer direct satellite-to-smartphone coverage starting in 2024, according to a pair of press releases on April 26th. They’ll be partnering with both satellite telephony newcomer Lynk Global and SpaceX’s Starlink service to provide the coverage.
Rogers’ release on SpaceX said that they are “the country’s biggest investor in 5G spectrum with Canada’s largest 5G network,” but competitor Bell Canada still has somewhat greater overall mobile coverage, with their previous-generation 4G network “covering over 99% of the population” according to Bell Mobility. And neither company’s network covers a fraction Canada’s vast sparsely-populated north; according to Compare Cellular, only 0.27% of Canada’s large Nunavut Territory is covered by Bell and third competitor Telus; Rogers covers only 0.022% of the Territory.
These deals will dramatically increase Rogers’ coverage in those regions, and in Canada’s remote regions in general. They also echo similar deals made late last year in the United States: where Apple made a deal with Globalstar to provide basic emergency communications to iPhone users, and T-Mobile made a deal with Starlink to provide basic satellite-to-phone connectivity using T-Mobile’s licensed spectrum starting with texting “and possibly messaging apps” according to SpaceX owner Elon Musk.
While Lynk is a newcomer to the industry, they’re launching their own constellation that they intend to serve as a “cell tower in space.” At the time, their release pointed out that they are “the only company in the world to have successfully sent text messages to and from space via unmodified mobile devices.” They said that they have “signed contracts with 15 mobile network operators (MNOs) in 36 countries representing over 240M mobile subscribers;” presumably Rogers was one of those unnamed partners.
Lynk’s plans are ambitious, as we reported last fall. Though their constellation is currently a small one, they said that their “‘rapid do-learn loop’ satellite design process” could “ramp up production to 200 satellites per month.” Their goal is to have a constellation of a thousand satellites providing “continuous real-time service” by 2025.
In their release on the Lynk deal, Rogers said that their Lynk deal would allow them to “begin to expand satellite-to-phone coverage in 2024 across Canada’s most remote regions and rural highways not covered by any wireless networks.” “The service will start with SMS texting and over time will expand to include voice and data,” likely depending on how and whether Lynk grows their thousand-satellite constellation on schedule. Rogers release also said that they have already “conducted successful technical tests with Lynk satellites in remote British Columbia and will start testing in Atlantic Canada.”
In terms of the SpaceX deal, the beginning of coverage is still in question. As with the Lynk deal, Rogers said that they will “start with satellite coverage for SMS text and will eventually provide voice and data,” and that they will provide coverage “across the country’s most remote wilderness, national parks and rural highways that are unconnected today.” No timeframe was given, however, for either the early SMS coverage or the later voice and data coverage. A SpaceX executive recently told CNBC that T-Mobile testing would begin this year.
A contributing factor for possible delays of the rollout of the Rogers-Starlink service may be Starlink’s second-generation satellites. Musk said during the T-Mobile announcement that the cell phone service would require “the most advanced phased array antennas in the world,” referring to those on the second-generation Starlink satellites. Yet while SpaceX has launched smaller “V2 Mini” satellites on the Falcon, the full-sized second-generation Starlink satellites are designed to be launched by SpaceX’s behemoth Starship launch vehicle. Starship is still comparatively early in testing.
Commentators like former CSA astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield have said that the latest Starship/Super Heavy launch was “enormously successful” as a test despite its explosive conclusion. The likely need to completely rebuild and possibly redesign the “Stage 0” launch infrastructure, however, may delay the next Starship test until much later this year. This will further push back the deployment of the full-sized second-generation Starlink satellites, and possibly the implementation of Rogers’ Starlink-based coverage.
SpaceX co-lead for Direct to Cell, Sara Spangelo, said in the SpaceX-Rogers release that “as a Canadian, I’m excited that SpaceX is collaborating with Rogers to bring SpaceX’s Direct to Cell service to Canadians. I’m proud of the impact this will have across the country wherever Canadians may work, play or travel.” On their own deal with Rogers, Lynk CEO Charles Miller said that “Rogers is the ideal partner for Lynk because of the company’s strong, national spectrum holdings and national wireless networks. We look forward to working with the Rogers team to ensure every single Canadian can call 911 in an emergency or connect from wherever they are.”
Rogers’ President and CEO Tony Staffieri said that they are “proud to work with SpaceX to expand wireless coverage across all of Canada, from coast to coast, to keep Canadians connected and safe… these investments will deliver wireless connectivity, including access to 911, to even the most remote areas.” On the Lynk deal, he said that “emergencies do not wait and that is one of the reasons why we are investing to make sure Canadians can always reach 911 from anywhere in Canada.”