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Is satellite connectivity the next big thing for smartphones?

05 Sep 2023

There is a reason why telecommunications providers across the globe are rushing to ink deals with Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite operators.

The race towards a Connected Galaxy is on.


Australian carriers rush to partner with LEO satellite operators

In Australia, both Telstra and Optus are ramping up LEO satellite go-to-market chat.

In June and July 2023, Telstra announced partnerships with two LEO operators, OneWeb and Starlink.  Telstra says it will use satellite for backhaul of its mobile network; and also has plans for direct-to-consumer connectivity in remote and regional Australia launching in 2024.

Optus has been in partnership with LEO operator, Lynk, for several years and demonstrated its first satellite to mobile call in the South Australian outback in late 2022. Earlier this year, Optus also announced its partnership with Starlink promising 100% coverage of Australia with SMS by late 2024, with voice and data to follow by late 2025.

Australia starlink telstra optus logos


Phone manufacturers injecting millions into satellite technology

While the carriers are rushing to ink deals with LEO operators, smartphone and chipset manufacturers are also vying to be first to master the technology.

Leading phone manufacturers and chipset makers globally are spending millions forging alliances aimed at developing satellite network technology.

Apple, has partnered with Globalstar, which already operates its own fleet of low-Earth orbiting satellites. Apple has announced it will spend $450 million to help Globalstar expand its satellite networking infrastructure, initially to support Apple's Emergency SOS via satellite feature. 

Samsung has developed its own modem technology for 5G communication between a smartphone and orbiting satellites, however the Korean company has yet to announce a satellite communications partner.

Chipset manufacturers also vying for satellite integration

Meanwhile, Qualcomm, the chip manufacturer, is working with global communications company Iridium to bring satellite connectivity to Android phones, utilising Snapdragon Satellite chips. 

Snapdragon-Satellite-3Qualcomm has partnered with Iridium and Snapdragon Satellite

MediaTek, the largest smartphone chipset provider by volume, has also announced a new chipset which will first launch on the Motorola Defy series of smartphones with support from the Bullitt Satellite Connect messaging service. 

And finally, Google has also jumped on the bandwagon and announced that Android 14, will bring support for smartphone to satellite connections.

Bullitt_satellite messagingMotorola Defy smartphones offer Bullitt Satellite Connect messaging.


What does satellite communication from our mobile phone look like?

To be clear - the chances of making voice calls from our phones via satellite is not on the near horizon.

The iPhone 14 or Pixel 7 has not suddenly morphed into a satphone.

Satellite communication with smartphones will initially be confined to text, and then MMS, and then two-way messaging.

Voice and data connectivity will surely be added in the future - some carriers are suggesting by late 2025 - though it would be wise to keep expectations grounded.

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Tyranny of distance is key barrier

The key barrier to satellite smartphone connectivity is the distance the signal must travel, including taking into account  that the satellite is moving. Then there is the size of antenna needed to send/receive a satellite signal.

SpaceX and American carrier, T-Mobile, announced a partnership which they promised would make satellite smartphone communication a reality but, even at the launch party in August 2022, they were warning of the many technical challenges that would need to be overcome. 

To provide the service - called Coverage Above and Beyond - the companies will need to create a new network broadcasting from Starlink’s satellites using T-Mobile’s mid-band spectrum nationwide. They promise this true satellite-to-cellular service will provide nearly complete coverage almost anywhere a US customer can see the sky.

TMobile coverage above and beyond

However to get this new network off the ground, SpaceX will need to launch new massive antennas which will also require a new rocket — Starship — to get them into space. With a couple of failed Starship launches already in 2023, SpaceX is currently relying on smaller versions of its new satellites as a stop-gap measure.

Satellite hype is starting

Closer to home, One New Zealand recently got in trouble with the advertising regulator for its 100% Coverage. Launching 2024 promotion.

The New Zealand Commerce Commission pointed out there would not be 100% coverage as devices need a 100 degree clear line of sight to the sky which rules out people indoors and in some outdoor environments for example when surrounded by trees or tall buildings.

The regulator also called out the advertised timeline as overstated, saying voice and mobile calls would only start in 2025, and then only in a limited capacity.

One New Zealand was forced to change its advertising tagline to: Coverage like never before. Launching 2024



Satellite is coming to your phone, but not when or how you might imagine

Satellite connectivity may indeed be the next big thing for smartphones.

There is undoubtedly strong demand from both business and consumers for a service that offers 100% coverage wherever you are.

However, smartphone-satellite connectivity it is unlikely to arrive in a meaningful way in the next two years.

Even the first step of two-way messaging is proving problematic. To date, texting is excruciatingly slow, taking up to two minutes on average for an SMS to transmit. 

There will be no sitting in the Outback streaming games in the foreseeable future.

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About MobileCorp

MobileCorp is an enterprise ICT solutions company with a mission to deliver our customers a communications technology edge. We provide 5G wireless WAN, Essential 8 as-a-Service, Managed Mobility Services, Enterprise Mobility Management, Complex Data and IP Networks, and Unified Communication solutions. We have a proven track record providing managed services for Australian enterprise and business, and we are a Telstra Platinum Partner. 

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