Via Satellite | The Coming Era of Satellite Direct-to-Handset Connectivity

Via Satellite | The Coming Era of Satellite Direct-to-Handset Connectivity

This article was originally published in Via Satellite on 28 November 2022. 

There is not a single regulatory framework that addresses mobile cellular devices with satellite capabilities – this unaddressed dichotomy belongs to the past. National satellite service licensing frameworks need to be flexible enough to allow for the smartphones of the present, because satellite direct-to-handset connectivity is an industry development that is here to stay. Traditional licensing, focused on satellites serving many identical terminals, will need to be adapted for a smartphone market with a multiplicity of vendors, as well as users that switch providers. National planning for spectrum utilization that is solely focused on military, state-related, or non-connectivity will lag behind for the foreseeable future.

In the 90s, satellite terminals were a privilege that few businesspeople and government officials had access to, with a focus on business continuity to assist critical decision-making by connecting to a state-of-the-art Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) constellation. Iridium was a game changer for the global user. Today, however, a wave of LEO constellations is in the making, leaving behind the excessive optimism with which our industry welcomed some of these projects in the past. Recent announcements tell us that the integration of terrestrial networks and non-terrestrial networks is leapfrogging.

According to Northern Sky Research, the direct satellite-to-device market is the single biggest opportunity in satellite comms history. Predicting revenue generation of $60 billion with up to 350 million subscribers by 2030, their assessment is evidenced by recent cellular and satellite industry partnerships. Apple has recently announced that the new iPhone can connect to Globalstar’s network for emergency calls, while Huawei plans to use China’s BeiDou satellites. But partnerships do not end with mobile phone manufacturers; mobile network operators (MNOs) are also partnering up with the satellite industry to extend their coverage. That is the case with T-Mobile, which is joining forces with Starlink to provide SMS and messaging services in underserved areas. By using a slice of the 1.9 gigahertz band that is already employed by terrestrial mobile networks, unmodified smartphones can connect to satellites without any additional gadgets. Lynk and other startups are also betting on this approach, and even Iridium has hinted that they will be entering the direct-to-handset market.

The idea is not to make consumers choose between a cellular or a satellite phone, but to turn their phone into a satellite terminal. This can be done either by including satellite-capable hardware into modern cell phones, as exemplified by Apple and Huawei, or by designing cellular-capable hardware into satellites, which is what Starlink and Lynk are doing. Either way, partnerships, not competition, between the mobile and the satellite industries mean that smartphones will progressively have integrated satellite connectivity. So much so that the 3GPP release 17 standardized unique cooperation between 5G and non-terrestrial networks, including satellites, to provide a seamless transition between the two.

Despite these exciting developments, several challenges need to be addressed before the dream of a high data rate and seamless global direct-to-handset services can be realized. The recently announced services will focus on low data rate, text, and voice-based communications. For high-speed broadband connections, a migration to higher frequencies may be necessary to access larger bandwidths with more capacity. Some millimeter wave frequency bands identified for international mobile communications by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) are also allocated to mobile satellite services and could be used by the two services on the same devices. While 5G is expected to use these frequency bands for indoor and hotspot connectivity, satellite operators may be able to connect to hardware already present in mobile phones to extend existing coverage.

The challenge for them, however, will be designing satellites capable of picking up faint signals from smartphones in environments with all sorts of obstructions and interference from terrestrial networks. Alternatively, manufacturing devices with capabilities in traditional satellite bands is also a possibility. With constant developments in millimeter wave smartphone electronics, the future may as well give us Ku- or Ka band-capable devices.

There is a growing expectation that satellite systems will play an important role in complementing terrestrial networks. The ITU is working on its vision for mobile communications beyond 2030, and non-terrestrial networks, including satellites, are expected to form an important part. The details of such partnerships are still unclear, and the path forward faces an increasing number of issues, such as guaranteeing a sustainable use of spectrum resources and dealing with competition.

Most industry leaders would agree that the key difference between today’s progress and that of the ‘90s is an understanding that satellite systems complement, but do not replace, cellular communications. Consequently, the two industries have been collaborating in ways never seen before in order to power satellite connectivity for everyday smartphones. While current projects focus on a low data rate and emergency communications, regulatory bodies will be doing a disservice by not envisioning and facilitating the frameworks required for broadband direct-to-handset connectivity. This may be how ubiquitous connectivity is finally achieved.

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