Satellite internet provider Starlink, owned by SpaceX, has quietly started advertising its “Direct to Cell” service on its website, promising connectivity to existing LTE phones “wherever you can see the sky.”
No changes to hardware, firmware, or special apps are required, providing seamless access to text, voice, and data. Starlink will offer text services in 2024, followed by voice, data and IoT connectivity in 2025.
Subscribers will be able to use their existing LTE phone to tap into the satellite service, the obvious benefit being if you are out in the wilderness somewhere without terrestrial coverage.
Direct to Cell satellites will initially be launched on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and then Starship. On orbit the satellites will immediately connect over laser backhaul to the Starlink constellation to provide global connectivity.
Starlink satellites with Direct to Cell capability are loaded with an eNodeB modem that acts like a cellphone tower in space, ‘allowing network integration similar to a standard roaming partner.’
In August last year, at SpaceX’s launch facility, Elon Musk and T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert announced ‘Coverage Above and Beyond’ a joint project which promised to ‘bring cell phone connectivity everywhere.’
The project appears to have experienced a name change in the intervening time, and additional operator partners are now listed on the new webpage as Optus in Australia, Rogers in Canada, One NZ in New Zealand, KDDI in Japan, and Salt in Switzerland.
As was the case with that initial launch, the details of what level of connectivity might be possible using this method remains vague – there was no actual announcement or press release for service which might have yielded such specifics.
Peter Kibutu, Advanced Technology Lead – NTNs at TTP told Telecoms.com: “Starlink continues to set ambitious targets for its satellite network, however, its plans to deliver a direct-to-cell service requires scrutiny. Offering connectivity supported by unmodified 4G handsets might only result in low-bandwidth data and voice services, falling short of contemporary data demands and user experience.
“Delivering satellite connectivity akin to what we can experience today on 4G and 5G devices will require the 3GPP-compliant 5G NR NTN waveform, which is continuously optimised to maximise the performance of direct to handset services over LEO satellite constellations. Starlink has made it clear that it will continue to use its own proprietary technology which, while providing it with speed to market, could present roadblocks in years to come as it struggles to support high-performance connectivity services and use cases that will be readily available via other satellite operator’s 5G NTN networks. It will be interesting to see if Starlink will also be looking to develop services that leverage industry best practices and incorporate a wider ecosystem.”
There are no details on pricing or any other details, so we really don’t know exactly what Starlink Direct to Satellite service entails and how it compares to rival satellite connectivity ventures.
Several agenda items for WRC‑23 include fixed, mobile, broadcasting, and radio determination satellite services. Study Group 4 ITU–R is responsible for preparing these agenda items, aiming to ensure efficient use of the radio spectrum and satellite orbit systems and networks.
Non‑geostationary satellite orbit (non‑GSO) systems are one of the top priorities on the WRC‑23 agenda.
First, coexistence must be ensured between non‑GSO and geostationary satellite orbit (GSO) systems, with protection being ensured for both kinds of satellites. This requires accurate calculations of potential interference to and from non‑GSOs, allowing possible modifications to non‑GSO systems to be considered where needed.Improved rules for non‑GSOs should also cover those on orbital tolerances. These will be treated under the conference’s agenda items for satellite services (7A), milestone reporting (7B), and aggregate interference to GSOs (7J), along with a functional description for software tools to determine non‑GSO fixed-satellite service (FSS) system or network conformity (ITU–R Recommendation S.1503).
Satellite operators expect decisions at WRC‑23 to provide maximum flexibility in the use of spectrum allocations for certain purposes.
These include: earth stations in motion (ESIM) in the FSS, under agenda items 1.15 and 1.16; inter-satellite communications in the FSS, item 1.17; and FSS in the existing broadcasting-satellite service (BSS), item 1.19.
WRC‑23 discussions on these topics will aim to allow for more efficient spectrum use than is currently the case.
Amid rapid satellite development in recent years, non‑GSO systems have been deployed on a large scale. At the same time, new high-capacity satellites have gone into geostationary orbit.
On the regulatory side, the addition of a satellite component to the International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT‑2020) ecosystem has enabled satellite usage in cellular networks, along with new satellite services and other innovations.
Member States of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) are increasingly raising the issue of sustainability, equitable access, and the rational use of GSO and non‑GSO spectrum resources. Resolution 219 of the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference (Bucharest, 2022) reflects these concerns.
WRC‑23 needs to continue giving high priority to establishing equitable access to satellite orbits. This means recognizing the special needs of developing countries, often including geographical challenges.
The development of innovative satellite technologies has now moved significantly ahead of regulations in the use of radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits. As this gap continues widening, ITU must find new approaches to keep international satellite regulation timely and relevant for the industry.
Technology is advancing so rapidly that some operators have begun to introduce new satellite technologies using GSO and non‑GSO satellites without waiting for conference decisions to regulate such use. Moreover, national administrations sometimes grant authorization for such uses in the absence of internationally agreed rules.
Concerns are growing about derogations from the ITU Radio Regulations, particularly under 4.4 of Article 4 — which allows national administrations to assign frequencies exceptionally, outside the Table of Frequency Allocations and other treaty requirements, as long as such assignments do not cause harmful interference to any existing radio services.
The conference will consider how to deal with the widespread use of 4.4, for non‑coordinated satellite networks. It should also clarify whether the derogation option under 4.4 should be available for all radio systems, or only non‑commercial systems.
Overall, WRC‑23 must clarify how administrations use the provision, when they have the right to invoke it, and which specific circumstances justify exceptional use of 4.4 on a temporary basis.
The Radio Regulations, containing the rules and regulations for the use of the radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits, are updated approximately every four years, in line with ITU’s associated conference cycle.
Perhaps the time has come to think about reducing the number of years between World Radiocommunication Conferences and simplifying the preparatory cycle and associated documentation. One way forward could be to reassess the current Conference Preparatory Meeting (CPM) format and to consider merging the two CPM sessions into one.
Given the rapid growth, transformation and innovation phase the satellite industry is now going through, WRC‑23 should instruct the ITU Radiocommunication Sector to conduct urgent studies on the potential for reusing frequency bands allocated to mobile services for non‑GSO satellite systems.
National administrations, as well as companies and organizations taking part as ITU Sector Members, need to jointly address these new issues, strengthen the ITU–R framework, and pursue global solutions for the benefit of all.
ABI Research and CCS Insight: Strong growth for satellite to mobile device connectivity (messaging and broadband internet access)
Japan network operator KDDI announced today that it has signed an agreement with SpaceX to introduce satellite-to-cellular service in Japan. Leveraging SpaceX’s Starlink low earth orbit (LEO) satellites and KDDI’s extensive national wireless spectrum, this partnership aims to enhance cellular connectivity in areas, including remote islands and mountains that have been traditionally hard to reach using conventional 4G and 5G networks.
The partnership is slated to introduce SMS text services as the initial step, starting as early as 2024. At a later date, voice and data services will follow suit. The company also announced the service will work with almost all existing smartphones on the KDDI network.
The service is planned to be provided based on the establishment of radio-related laws and regulations in Japan.
SpaceX first announced plans to provide cellular connectivity with T-Mobile in the US last year. At the time Elon Musk invited other companies to join them, and while there were no immediate takers, KDDI is now the third company to sign a deal.
Earlier this year New Zealand’s telecommunications company, One NZ (formerly known as Vodafone), announced it has signed an agreement with SpaceX to offer mobile coverage across the country, eliminating cellular dead zones.
KDDI and SpaceX also invite carries worldwide to join the ecosystem of mobile network operators bringing next generation satellite enabled connectivity to their customers.
KDDI’s au network enables our customer’s daily lives and helps them share unforgettable moments. We are proud of providing 99.9% “population coverage” to the people of Japan. Unfortunately, only a small portion of the Japanese land mass is habitable and often it is difficult to use traditional technologies to provide coverage from coast to coast. Our extensive network continues to grow in coverage as we deploy more fiber and satellite backhauled base stations. In addition to our continued efforts, we will provide “connecting the unconnected” experience, by enabling smartphones to connect to satellites.
■About Starlink by SpaceX:
Starlink delivers high-speed, low-latency internet to users all over the world. As the world’s first and largest satellite constellation using a low Earth orbit, Starlink delivers broadband internet capable of supporting streaming, online gaming, video calls and more. Starlink is engineered and operated by SpaceX. As the world’s leading provider of launch services, SpaceX is leveraging its deep experience with both spacecraft and on-orbit operations to deploy the world’s most advanced broadband internet system, as well as a Direct to Cell constellation of satellites to provide connectivity directly to unmodified LTE cell phones.
Satellite Communications (SatCom) market services will include fixed broadband Internet access, satellite Internet of Things (IoT), and Non-Terrestrial Network (NTN) mobile (satellite-to-cell services). These services will experience growth due to more satellite players launching networks in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), alongside an increasing interest in terrestrial and satellite network convergence.
The market is expanding rapidly and major players are quickly recognizing its potential. While satellite networks are experiencing rapid changes due to innovations in small satellites and nanosatellites, Software-Defined Networking (SDN) applications, High Throughput Satellites (HTS), and inter-satellite links, terminals on the ground continue to see growth, with Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSAT) SatCom solutions maintaining dominance in the market.
According to Research & Markets, the SATCOM equipment market is valued at $22.6 billion in 2023 and is projected to reach $38.7 billion by 2028, at a CAGR of 11.3% from 2023 to 2028. Based on frequency, the multiband frequency is projected to register the highest during the forecast period 2023-2028.
ITU-R Working Party 4B (WP 4B) is responsible for recommendations related to: Systems, air interfaces, performance and availability objectives for FSS, BSS and MSS, including IP-based applications and satellite news gathering.
WP 4B has a working document which is a preliminary draft new Report ITU-R M.[SAT IOT] – Technical and operational aspects of satellite Internet of Things (IoT) applications, a work plan and working document on Work plan for development of a preliminary draft new Report ITU-R M.[DEVELOPMENT AND TECHNOLOGY TRENDS FOR THE SATELLITE COMPONENT OF INTERNATIONAL MOBILE TELECOMMUNICATIONS]. WP5D last meeting was July 2023, but the following meeting won’t be till April 29 to May 5, 2024!
Yet the real SatCom air interface specifications work is being done by 3GPP, under the umbrella term of NTN:
3GPP Release 17 introduced new network topologies that are based on High-Altitude Platforms (HAPs) and LEO and Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellites. Crucially, these laid out the foundation for satellite IoT and NTN mobile as Release 17 extended the cellular IoT protocols, LTE-M and Narrowband (NB)-IoT for satellites. This enabled two new standards for satellite networks, IoT-NTN and New Radio-NTN (NR-NTN). SatCom with individual mobile devices will close gaps in the terrestrial cellular networks to provide global connectivity. It will target issues like unreachability and service continuity in underserved regions and improve network resilience around the world.
The discussion items in the upcoming Release 18 are expected to enhance NTN Mobile and Satellite IoT as key satellite enabled services. While Release 17 established the standards for IoT-NTN and NR-NTN, Release 18 will evolve both those specifications for IoT and satellite-to-mobile broadband connectivity. For NR-NTN, there are plans to run NR-NTN on Radio Frequency (RF) spectrum above 10 Gigahertz (GHz) to serve the aerospace and maritime industry, alongside businesses and buildings (with building-mounted devices). Release 18 is also expected to include enhancements in satellite backhaul, specifically the dedication of more spectrum for Mobile Satellite Services (MSS), with approximately 80 Megahertz (MHz) of uplink in the L-band and downlink in the S-band.
At the same time, improvements targeted toward Fixed Satellite Services (FSS) will be brought about by Release 18 as well, with the consideration of more bands in the Ka frequency bands for downlink (17.7 – 20.2 GHz) and uplink (27.5 – 30 GHz). While the specifics of 3GPP Release 18 are still in development, 3GPP has already established the boundaries of Release 18 that will benefit the SatCom market. Furthermore, with the recent mergers of Eutelsat and OneWeb in 2022 and Viasat and Inmarsat in 2023, in addition to the launch of Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite (IRIS2), a project endorsed by the European Union (EU) in 2022 to enhance connectivity throughout the EU, more partnerships and agreements are expected to arise ahead of the official launch of 3GPP Release 18 in 2024.
ABI Research says that 3GPP Release 18 aims to unlock new capabilities toward the evolution of 5G-Advanced and establish new regulatory requirements, along with new bands, while optimizing satellite access performance. The market research firm forecasts the market value for worldwide SatCom to be US$94.9 billion by 2027 (MD-SATCC-102). The growth of NTN mobile, in addition to broadband, will drive the market moving forward, with special mention of NTN mobile revenue likely to shoot from 0.2% of the total revenue in 2023 to 8.8% of the overall SatCom revenue by 2027. ABI Research recognizes that greater value has been placed on the protocols, such as 3GPP Release 18 and beyond, that will develop and nurture the SatCom space.
Strategic partnerships between terrestrial and NTN operators, solution providers/Communication Service Providers (CSPs), and wireless end-user equipment vendors are currently on the rise and will be critical in expanding the ecosystem and market toward 2027. For instance, MediaTek and Qualcomm have partnered with Inmarsat and Iridium, respectively, to target the NTN mobile market.
Meanwhile, AST SpaceMobile has agreements with AT&T, Rakuten Mobile, and several other mobile network operators. Where satellite IoT is concerned, CSPs like Deutsche Telekom have established partnerships with Intelsat and Skylo, whereas Telefónica and Sateliot are working together to trial satellite IoT connectivity. While partnerships are a good indicator of SatCom’s market potential, it is important that operators consider differentiated and unique product offerings for clients.
The value proposition that SatCom players can offer their target market will be essential for this process. Some examples might include integrated end-to-end IoT solutions for maritime, offshore connectivity, or end-to-end NTN mobile solutions that marry NTN hardware and software for satellite connectivity. Nonetheless, the creation of new value added services will benefit from 3GPP Release 18, in addition to driving the overall momentum and agenda of the Satellite Communications market.
ABI Research’s Highlights & Developments in the SatCom NTN Market (PT-2740)
ABI Research and CCS Insight: Strong growth for satellite to mobile device connectivity (messaging and broadband internet access)
ITU-R M.2150-1 (5G RAN standard) will include 3GPP Release 17 enhancements; future revisions by 2025
The GSMA and the European Space Agency (ESA) on Wednesday announced the signing of a memorandum of intent (MoI) that covers collaboration on new satellite and terrestrial network technologies. GSMA’s Foundry innovation accelerator will work closely with the ESA’s 5G/6G Hub based at the ESA’s European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications in Harwell, Oxfordshire.
Non-terrestrial networking (NTN) has been incorporated into the 3GPP’s 5G specification since Release 17 (but not in the ITU-R M.2150 5G RIT/SRIT standard which covers only terrestrial networks), and work is already well underway to turn it into a commercial reality. The partnership between the GSMA and the ESA represents a more coordinated effort in that direction. What’s more, when it comes to 6G, non-terrestrial networking is expected to be baked in from the start. Again, cooperation between these two sectors will be invaluable.
The GSMA and ESA’s goal then is to create an ecosystem that can fast-track the development of new complimentary solutions for businesses and consumers. They also aim to accelerate the integration of satellite communications with 5G and, when the time comes, 6G networks.
“By collaborating more closely with the European Space Agency, and its satellite network operator ecosystem, we hope to accelerate the immense potential satellite and terrestrial telecommunications networks can create for consumers and businesses when they are more closely connected. By working together, we can help the communications industry bring innovative solutions to market, which in turn will create tremendous benefits to society by connecting even more people, wherever they are in the world,” said GSMA CTO Alex Sinclair, in a statement.
What the MoI means in practical terms is that the GSMA and ESA’s respective innovation hubs plan to start working together, sharing knowledge, ideas, and the outcomes of trials with one another.
On the telecoms side, the GSMA has the Foundry, which fosters collaboration between telcos and various industries with the aim of developing initial ideas into globally-scalable, commercial solutions. Completed projects include using 5G to enable drones to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), a 5G broadcast solution, and using 5G for automated farming solutions, among others.
Similarly, on the satellite side of the equation, the ESA has its 5G/6G Hub. Opened in February 2022, it provides a space where new 5G and satcom technologies can be developed and integrated. Developers can also use it to test and verify their 5G converged network applications and services. The ESA announced in January that it is expanding the facility to accommodate new areas of research, which it aims to identify via a consultation with industry experts.
Recent research findings by GSMAi showed that the increased adoption and integration of satellite technologies by the communications industry could lead to potential revenue gains of $35bn by 2035 (a 3% uplift on telecommunications industry revenues).
Speaking following the signing of the MOI at ECSAT in Oxfordshire, Alex Sinclair, Chief Technology Officer at the GSMA said: “By collaborating more closely with the European Space Agency, and its satellite network operator ecosystem, we hope to accelerate the immense potential satellite and terrestrial telecommunications networks can create for consumers and businesses when they are more closely connected. By working together, we can help the communications industry bring innovative solutions to market, which in turn will create tremendous benefits to society by connecting even more people, wherever they are in the world.”
Antonio Franchi, Head of Space for 5G and 6G Strategic Programme, ESA, said: “Collaboration is key to telecommunications innovation and, from our 5G/6G Hub, we are fostering industry partnerships to advance the 5G digital transformation of society and industry. We look forward to working with GSMA to explore and realise the huge potential of next-generation satellite-enabled connectivity.”
ABI Research predicts that global 5G non-terrestrial networking (NTN) service revenue will achieve a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 59% between 2024 and 2031, reaching $18 billion. By then, connections are expected to number 200 million.
The GSMA is a global organisation unifying the mobile ecosystem to discover, develop and deliver innovation foundational to positive business environments and societal change. Our vision is to unlock the full power of connectivity so that people, industry, and society thrive. Representing mobile operators and organisations across the mobile ecosystem and adjacent industries, the GSMA delivers for its members across three broad pillars: Connectivity for Good, Industry Services and Solutions, and Outreach. This activity includes advancing policy, tackling today’s biggest societal challenges, underpinning the technology and interoperability that make mobile work, and providing the world’s largest platform to convene the mobile ecosystem at the MWC and M360 series of events.
We invite you to find out more at gsma.com
For more information on GSMA Foundry, please visit: gsma.com/foundry
About the European Space Agency
The European Space Agency (ESA) provides Europe’s gateway to space.
ESA is an intergovernmental organisation, created in 1975, with the mission to shape the development of Europe’s space capability and ensure that investment in space delivers benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world.
ESA has 22 Member States: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Slovenia, Latvia and Lithuania are Associate Members.
ESA has established formal cooperation with five Member States of the EU. Canada takes part in some ESA programmes under a Cooperation Agreement.
By coordinating the financial and intellectual resources of its members, ESA can undertake programmes and activities far beyond the scope of any single European country. It is working in particular with the EU on implementing the Galileo and Copernicus programmes as well as with Eumetsat for the development of meteorological missions.
ABI Research and CCS Insight: Strong growth for satellite to mobile device connectivity (messaging and broadband internet access)
CCS Insight believes that these enhanced satellite networks have the capability to grow to deliver voice and data services as the constellations evolve. It adds that network operators will be able to offer these satellite services as add-ons to existing subscription packages, catering to the growing demand for ubiquitous connectivity.
As demand for enhanced global connectivity continues to rise, the analyst forecasts that 15% of global mobile subscribers are expected to own a smartphone that supports satellite messaging by 2027 and an additional 10% will benefit from satellite plans provided by their operator. By capitalizing on revenue streams generated through operators and supplementary services, CCCS believes that the direct-to-device satellite market is poised to amass $18bn in revenue by 2027. This market it said represented a “vast opportunity”, with an audience of more than 4.8 billion people who could access satellite services through a compatible smartphone. It calculated that as many as 493 million people worldwide lack any kind of mobile network coverage.
“Bringing satellite capabilities to mass-market smartphones marks a milestone in the telecom industry,” said Luke Pearce, senior analyst at CCS Insight. “This development creates exciting opportunities for consumers, manufacturers and operators and promises to help bridge the digital divide. The projected growth in revenue and subscribers highlights the potential this integration holds for expanding connectivity options – we’re witnessing the start of a new era where satellite services become an integral part of everyday smartphones.”
CCS Insight’s free report, Direct Satellite-to-Device Mobile Services, shares unique insight into the market for satellite-connected phones and unpacks its developing dynamics.
Spark, the leading telco in New Zealand, announced it is collaborating with Lynk Global to offer a satellite-to-mobile service, aiming to enhance connectivity for its customers. Later this year, selected customers will be offered a free trial of the service.
The satellite-to-mobile service will enable periodic text messaging throughout the day during the initial trial. However, as more commercial satellites are deployed, Spark intends to expand the service in 2024 to offer more regular connectivity. The ultimate goal is to provide voice and data services to customers once they become reliably available.
Spark said while satellite coverage cannot reach 100 percent due to the requirement of a clear line of sight to the sky, it offers an additional layer of resilience, especially in light of increasingly severe and frequent weather events caused by climate change. By leveraging satellite connectivity, Spark aims to extend its network reach to areas that are currently underserved by traditional mobile coverage.
According to the Spark press release, the trial period will provide an opportunity to refine and enhance the service in alignment with the increasing number of satellites in orbit. Integration into Spark’s network and regulatory approval are also essential steps before the service can be officially launched.
Photo Credit: Spark New Zealand
The collaboration with Lynk Global and the existing partnership with Netlinkz, which aims to provide satellite broadband services, are part of Spark’s broader strategy to leverage satellite technology as part of its connectivity offering to customers. Spark says it is actively working with various partners to expand the range of services it can deliver.
In a separate announcement last week, Spark revealed its partnership agreement with Netlinkz to provide Starlink business-grade satellite broadband to customers later this year. This initiative follows ongoing trials with a select number of New Zealand businesses.
Spark Product Director, Tessa Tierney, said, “We believe satellite has an important role to play in connecting Aotearoa New Zealand. While satellite can’t provide 100% coverage – as you need a clear line of sight to the sky to get connected2 – it certainly adds an additional layer of resilience, particularly now, as we face increasingly severe and frequent weather events due to climate change. And once there are more satellites launched and the service is available more broadly, it will allow our mobile customers to start to use their phones in more areas that aren’t reached by traditional mobile coverage.”
“We know that our customers will be eager to start using satellite messaging, but the technology is still evolving, so the service and experience will improve and expand as the number of satellites in the sky increases. That’s why we’ve chosen to trial this technology with some of our customers first, to make sure we can offer a great product to our customers when we make it widely available. We also need to integrate the technology into our network and achieve regulatory approval to launch the service. But we are excited to see the possibilities this creates for New Zealanders and will be working hard to make it widely available as soon as we can.
“This partnership with Lynk, and our partnership with NetLinkz to offer a satellite business connectivity service are part of Spark’s broader strategy to use satellite as a part of our connectivity offer to customers. We are continuing to work with these and other potential partners to broaden the services Spark can offer.”
Spark’s introduction of satellite-to-mobile services and business-grade satellite broadband underscores its commitment to enhancing connectivity options for customers across the country, particularly in underserved areas. Spark said further details, including eligibility criteria and timelines, will be disclosed in the coming months.
Satellite communications firm AST SpaceMobile, with the help of AT&T, has announced the first two-way audio call using satellites with standard smartphones as the end points. The initial call was placed using AT&T’s cellular network in Midland, Texas, to mobile carrier Rakuten in Japan using AST SpaceMobile’s BlueWalker 3 satellite in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), a breakthrough that could improve global cellular connectivity in remote regions without access to cell towers.
AST SpaceMobile claims this is “the first time anyone has ever achieved a direct voice connection from space to everyday cellular devices.” The phone call was made from an unmodified Samsung Galaxy S22 in Midland, Texas, using mobile spectrum from AT&T and connected to an iPhone used by Japanese tech giant Rakuten. Engineers from AT&T, Rakuten, and UK-based telecommunications company Vodafone assisted with the testing.
The use of satellites could be a significant step toward increasing cellular access not only in the U.S., where large areas of the country struggle with service, but in developing countries too. Typically a mobile phone call requires nearby cell towers to provide service. Many areas across the United States, such as rural communities and national parks, are “dead zones” — yes, just like the eerie early 2000s Verizon commercials warned. The same technology could be a great solution to the same issues in developing countries. Instead, satellites could act as a sort of space-based network of cell towers — with AST SpaceMobile claiming it’s “building the first and only space-based cellular broadband network.”
AT&T aims to use satellites to provide global cellular broadband from 2G to 5G. “Achieving what many once considered impossible, we have reached the most significant milestone to date in our quest to deliver global cellular broadband from space,” Abel Avellan, CEO and chairman of AST SpaceMobile, said in a press release. “While we take a moment to celebrate this tremendous accomplishment, we remain focused on the path ahead and pivotal next steps that get us closer to our goal of transforming the way the world connects.”
Image Credit: Image: AST SpaceMobile
Margherita Della Valle, Vodafone Group Chief Executive, said: “Today, we have taken another major step in mobile communications. 30 years after Vodafone sent the world’s first text message, we supported AST SpaceMobile in successfully making the first ever direct-to-smartphone test call using satellite communications. This is just the start. As a lead investor in AST SpaceMobile, we will continue to break technological boundaries by connecting many more millions of people across the planet when the service becomes commercially available.”
Mickey Mikitani, Rakuten Chairman & CEO, commented: “It was a unique thrill and honor to have the Rakuten team talk with Abel in a world-first direct-to-satellite experience. Congratulations to AST SpaceMobile and all of its strategic collaborators on this groundbreaking event. As technological advancements like space connectivity become possible with pioneers like AST SpaceMobile, Rakuten will also progress even further along the road to democratizing connectivity for all.”
Chris Sambar, Head of AT&T Network, said: “AT&T’s heritage began with the birth of the telephone 147 years ago and has continued with many other firsts including: trans-continental call, overseas call, call from the moon, and partnering to deliver the only network built with and for America’s first responders. We connect people to greater possibility, and this important milestone with AST SpaceMobile is a big step and we can’t wait to see what’s next in our space-based journey.”
It’s unclear whether satellite access would come at an extra cost. In AT&T’s original AST SpaceMobile partnership annoucement, the company couldn’t say whether existing plans would include satellite coverage. While satellite offerings aren’t available for consumers yet, this successful test brings widespread access one step closer to becoming a reality.
Chairman & CEO Abel Avellan and an AST SpaceMobile engineer completing test calls in Texas
Image Credit: Image: AST SpaceMobile
Other U.S. network operators are also pursuing satellite network mobile phone calls:
Verizon teamed up with Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellite network in 2021 with the intention of connecting underserved communities and industries. Amazon is in the midst of launching its satellites into space, with its FCC license requiring at least half of the 3,236 they plan to deploy to be operational by July 2026.
T-Mobile has partnered with SpaceX, a major competitor of Project Kuiper, with plans to “start getting into testing” its satellite mobile coverage this year. There are currently over 4,000 Starlink satellites in orbit, though some have experienced issues requiring them to be removed from orbit or tested further. T-Mobile has claimed customers should have satellite access through most existing plans and, like AT&T, that existing phones should work with the satellite offerings.
See References below for more global Satellite Internet initiatives.
Emergency SOS: Apple iPhones to be able to send/receive texts via Globalstar LEO satellites in November
UK’s Bullitt Group, in partnership with Motorola Mobility (a Lenovo company), has unveiled a new device in the Motorola Defy rugged range that incorporates its unique satellite-to-mobile messaging service. The motorola defy satellite link, is a Bluetooth device that provides satellite connectivity to any iOS or Android smartphone*, designed for anyone that has ever been frustrated by a lack of cell coverage – whether travelling or participating in outdoor activities, or just in their daily lives.
Note: This Bullitt-Motorola initiative joins a lot of other smart phone satellite messaging services announced in the last few months (please refer to links in References below.
The Motorola Defy puts the satellite connectivity hardware—a new chip from MediaTek—in a separate self-powered device that connects to either iPhones (running iOS 14 or later) or Android smartphones (running Android 10 or later) over Bluetooth. It’s rated IP68, which means it can survive a shallow dunking (a couple of feet of water) for up to 30 minutes, while Motorola claims you can get several days of use from the Defy’s 600 mAh rechargeable battery.
Motorola and Bullitt have reaffirmed their commitment to innovation by integrating Bullitt Satellite Messenger into the new Motorola Defy range, showcased by both companies at MWC 2023.
Instead of using the native messaging app on either platform, the Motorola Defy relies on the third party Bullitt Satellite Messenger app that also works when the device has wifi or cellular connectivity, but will automatically switch to using geostationary satellites when the user is out of range of terrestrial services. For two-way chats, other users will need the Bullitt app as well, but messages can be relayed through SMS, which will prompt the other party to install the app before they can chat with the sender.
Recipients aren’t charged for receiving messages or sending replies, but the person relying on the satellite connection is. Up to 30 two-way messages can be sent for $4.99/month, although the $99 Motorola Defy can also be purchased as part of a $149, 12-month messaging subscription bundle
Motorola Defy satellite link: a robust Bluetooth accessory with Bullitt Satellite Connectivity:
The Motorola Defy satellite link is a compact, lightweight, Bluetooth accessory with a handy attachment loop that allows any Android or iOS device* to connect to the Bullitt Satellite Messenger application and utilize its full functionality, including true two-way messaging over satellite, as well as location sharing and SOS assistance.
The tough, pocket-friendly device has passed Mil-Spec 810H testing and is waterproof and dustproof with an IP68 rating. It has a 600mAh battery, providing sufficient battery life for multiple days of use. The design includes a physical SOS and location ‘Check In’ button, allowing it to offer some functions even when apart from its paired smartphone.
Designed to give any smartphone the power of satellite connectivity, the motorola defy satellite link is an advanced satellite hotspot device that ensures peace of mind – wherever your next adventure takes you.
Bullitt Satellite Messenger: Featuring direct-to-satellite mobile phone technology for two-way satellite messaging:
Bullitt Satellite Messenger is the first 3GPP standards-based satellite NTN or ‘direct-to-device’ service. The new motorola defy range will use the service to access existing geostationary satellites, providing affordable and continuous coverage internationally over existing, well-established infrastructure. With this new technology, customers can message over satellite, as long as they have a clear view of the sky.
The motorola defy satellite device will Bluetooth connect to any smartphone. The device then connects directly to geostationary satellites 22,300 miles above the earth and allows you to send text messages via the Bullitt Satellite Messenger app, when cellular and Wi-Fi are not available. Recipients without the Bullitt Satellite Messenger app can receive a message as a simple SMS to their existing phone, and are invited to download the associated Android or iOS app to respond.
The cost of the messages sent or received over satellite will be deducted from the satellite messaging subscriber’s plan with no cost to the recipient. There is no charge to either party when sending or receiving messages over an internet connection.
SOS Assist – with 24/7 access to emergency response centers provided by FocusPoint International – is included with all plans which start from as little as $4.99/ month, with other flexible and heavier usage plans also available.
Pricing and availability:
The motorola defy satellite link will be available from April 2023 across international retailers. For local availability visit www.motorolarugged.com. Priced from $99 / €119 / £99 for the device only. A bundle including one year subscription to the Essentials Messaging service plan (up to 30 two-way messages per month and SOS Assist) will start at $149 / €169/ £149.
The motorola defy satellite link will be available for the first hands-on demonstrations at Showstoppers at MWC23, Sunday, 26 February, 4-7pm, Maritime Museum and at the Bullitt stand, Hall 7, Stand B50. The devices are also on display on the Lenovo stand in Hall 3, Stand 3N30 and MediaTek in Hall 3, Stand 3D10.
Emergency SOS: Apple iPhones to be able to send/receive texts via Globalstar LEO satellites in November
Samsung Electronics, a leader in advanced semiconductor technology, today announced that it has secured standardized 5G non-terrestrial networks (NTN) [1.] modem technology for direct communication between smartphones and satellites, especially in remote areas. Samsung plans to integrate this technology into the company’s Exynos modem solutions, accelerating the commercialization of 5G satellite communications and paving the way for the 6G-driven Internet of Everything (IoE) era. That’s noteworthy considering Samsung’s latest flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S23, does not use Samsung’s Exynos platform and instead only uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chipset.
Note 1. There are no ITU or ETSI standards for 5G NTN– only for 5G terrestrial networks. It is not even under consideration for the next revision o the 5G RAN standard– ITU-R M.2150-1.
NTN is a communications technology that uses satellites and other non-terrestrial vehicles to bring connectivity to regions that were previously unreachable by terrestrial networks, whether over mountains, across deserts or in the middle of the ocean. It will also be critical in assuring operability in disaster areas and powering future urban air mobility (UAM) such as unmanned aircraft and flying cars.
“This milestone builds on our rich legacy in wireless communications technologies, following the introduction of the industry’s first commercial 4G LTE modem in 2009 and the industry’s first 5G modem in 2018,” said Min Goo Kim, Executive Vice President of CP (Communication Processor) Development at Samsung Electronics. “Samsung aims to take the lead in advancing hybrid terrestrial-NTN communications ecosystems around the world in preparation for the arrival of 6G.”
By meeting the latest 5G NTN specifications defined by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP Release 17), [2.] Samsung’s NTN technology will help ensure interoperability and scalability among services offered by global telecom carriers, mobile device makers and chip companies.
Note 2. 3GPP Release 17 contains specs for 5G-NR over Non terrestrial Networks (NTN) and NB-IoT over NTN,
Impacts on 5GC of Satellite NG-RAN used as new RAN 3GPP access
In 3GPP Rel-17, only direct access with transparent satellite is considered, as shown in following figure:
For highly reliable NTN communication with low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, Samsung has developed and simulated 5G NTN standard-based satellite technology using its Exynos Modem 5300 reference platform to accurately predict satellite locations and minimize frequency offsets caused by the Doppler shift. Based on this technology, Samsung’s future Exynos modems will support two-way text messaging as well as high-definition image and video sharing. That would be an important development considering today’s phone-to-satellite services generally support only slow-speed emergency messaging (e.g. Apple iPhone 14). An offering that supports high-bandwidth services like video calling would presumably require far more satellites than today’s services use – and it could also pose a challenge to terrestrial mobile network operators looking to make profits from offering high-bandwidth services in remote or rural areas.
Additionally, Samsung said it plans to secure a standardized NB-IoT NTN technology for use in its next-generation modem platforms. With integrated satellite connectivity, Samsung’s NB-IoT solutions will eliminate the need for a separate high-power wireless antenna chip inside smartphones, providing mobile device makers with much greater design flexibility.
Samsung has not disclosed when the company might begin offering satellite services in its 5G NTN equipped phones, how much the service might cost, and which satellite operators might support the offering.
In a related development, Omnispace and Ligado Networks today announced a new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to combine their respective spectrum holdings in order to offer “space-based, direct-to-device (D2D) solutions for global voice, text and data connectivity.”
The companies pledged to merge Ligado’s 40MHz of L-band satellite spectrum in the U.S. and Canada with Omnispace’s 60MHz of S-band satellite spectrum. “The combination of L- and S-band spectrum is a unique opportunity to expand the ecosystem of D2D applications and technologies, enhance user experience and extend service globally. For consumer smartphones, the offering will have enough bandwidth to go beyond emergency satellite texting by offering ubiquitous roaming mobile coverage with two-way voice, messaging and data capabilities,” according to the companies’ press release.
However, there are plenty of obstacles to the companies’ ambitions. For example, Ligado has spent years working to free its spectrum of interference concerns, and its financial footing remains a question. “Ligado has no cash and an overwhelming debt load,” tweeted analyst Tim Farrar with TMF Associates following the announcement from Ligado and Omnispace.