The next big thing in mobile telephony may well be out of this world, literally, as anticipation for a growing range of options of satellite-to-cellular – or satellite communication – emerges.
The use of satellites to connect your smartphone to the network could be a game changer, offering the ability to eliminate dead spots the world over and ensure that you’re always in contact. We’re expecting there to be a whole range of terms involved with the new technology, but you can expect to hear about “satellite communication” on the consumer front or “non-terrestrial networks (NTN)” in more technical content – and probably a whole load more terms too.
Why is everyone talking about smartphones and satellites?
There’s been increasing discussion about phones and satellites, fuelled by several different strands of conversation. Firstly, T-Mobile and SpaceX announced a collaboration that’s designed to provide 100 per cent coverage for the US, allowing T-Mobile customers access no matter where they are – even in remote places. Secondly, Apple announced emergency SOS via satellite on iPhone 14 in 2022, which put it firmly on the agenda.
Approval has already been granted by 3GPP – the organisation that oversees standards development for communications technologies – for 5G NTNs (that’s non-terrestrial networks, remember), so there is a coordinated effort in place to develop and research satellite communication for future devices, while launches and announcements continue apace.
How is satellite communication different to current cellular networks?
Currently your mobile phone network relies on a terrestrial connection. Your phone connects to a cell tower or base station via radio waves, and that tower is usually physically connected to the infrastructure to send that data wherever it needs to go. Usually you’ll connect to a number of cell towers at the same time, allowing constant coverage as you move from place to place – but the system relies on one thing: you need the terrestrial connection to make it work.
In remote locations, beyond the reach of those terrestrial cell towers, there’s no reception. You’re in a dead spot. That problem can only be solved if there’s some way to get a connection to that location.
Satellites solve that problem by removing the need for the terrestrial connection. If your phone can connect to something in the sky, you solve the problem of lacking the physical infrastructure on the ground – but you do then need that infrastructure in the sky. That’s what you’ll connect to – using radio waves – to enable satellite communication.
Wait, don’t sat phones already exist?
Yes, they do. The must-have accessory for Hollywood heroes or special forces teams behind enemy lines, the sight of someone pulling out a chunky terminal with a big fat antenna have graced our screens for years.
Sat phones aren’t uncommon either – they’re commercially available but typically they are expensive, designed for working in remote areas and don’t really have time for consumer features.
Networks are provided by some names you might recognise such as Inmarsat, Thuraya or Iridium, with a mixture of satellite systems either geostationary (for the former two) or low Earth orbital (for the latter).
Dmitriy Suponnikov on Unsplash
Low Earth orbital (LEO) might be more familiar recently, because that’s how SpaceX’s Starlink operates, as well as the OneWeb system.
Something more familiar might be Garmin InReach. This uses the Iridium network for communication and costs from $14.95 a month, along with $399 price for something like the InReach Mini 2 – but it is effectively a satellite communicator.
Garmin inReach Mini 2 Satellite Communicator
Who will be providing the satellites?
We didn’t just casually mention Starlink just then – Starlink is already lined up to provide the T-Mobile service in the US. And with Starlink aiming to achieve global coverage with its satellite service, it would be a fair assumption that agreements could be reached with other network providers in other regions to provide a similar service.
The network that is powering Apple’s system is Globalstar. Globalstar is a US satellite communication company with 24 LEO satellites and already provides a range of services. Qualcomm also has a system in the works called Snapdragon Satellite – likely to become dominant on Android devices – which will use the Iridium network.
The important thing to note is that there are already satellites in orbit that can provide the required functions, so there’s potential for a range of different providers for these services. Much of it may depend on what the satellite can provide from existing technology, how that interfaces with consumer hardware, changes needed to ground stations and how the commercial agreements can be worked out.
What functions will satellite communication offer?
There were two services launched in 2022: Apple’s service on the iPhone 14 will allow you to send messages to emergency services in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, France and Germany, while the Huawei system works in China allowing you to send emergency messages.
According to T-Mobile and SpaceX, their initial focus will be on SMS messaging. The initial phase of connectivity will focus on simpler forms of communication, but it will scale-up over time until it offers the sort of voice and data connectivity that you’re used to. The aim, in reality, is to provide connectivity to remote places so users can stay in touch, and it may be some time before you can realistically expect to be able to head into the remotest part of the wilderness and then stream 4K video on your phone.
The Snapdragon Satellite system will also offer emergency SOS functions like Apple’s system, but will also provide SMS style messaging, allowing users to stay in touch, although the details behind this haven’t been fully revealed – we don’t know how the messaging will be supplied or what costs might be involved.
What devices will support satellite communication?
You’ll notice that we said devices, because this isn’t just limited to phones. Obviously, the iPhone already offers some functions, but Qualcomm has also confirmed that Snapdragon Satellite will be available on device from early H2 2023. It will start with top tier devices and roll down to lower level phones – because there isn’t much that’s needed to make it function.
But you can also expect to see other devices offering satellite connectivity. The Motorola Defy Satellite Link (pictured above), is a Bluetooth dongle that will connect to a smartphone (Apple or Android) to provide messaging and SOS functions. It will be available in Q2 2023.
Beyond that, it’s likely that satellite communication could also be integrated into vehicles, again providing another route to calling for help if you get stranded.
When will I get satellite communication on my phone?
Emergency SOS on the iPhone 14 was made available from November 2022. Huawei launched a service on the Mate 50 using China’s Beidou system. That phone was announced in September 2022. T-Mobile announced Coverage Above and Beyond, saying that it will be in beta by the end of 2023.
As mentioned above, Snapdragon Satellite will likely find its way into a lot of Android phones from the second half of 2023 onwards, while Motorola’s solution will also be available in 2023. While there aren’t a huge range of options available now, by the end of 2023, we expect you’ll have plenty of choice.