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Space race to attach satellites to phones with Apple, SpaceX, AT&T


The race to supply high-speed web from satellites is well underway – but one other, more ambitious competition, to attach directly from space to devices like smartphones, began in earnest earlier this 12 months.

The potential untapped market — which hinges on, but extends beyond, sending a text via space — is spurring a tale of two strategies: Those putting specialized antennae in phones, versus those putting high-powered antennae on the satellites themselves. For some corporations, it means billions spent on what could find yourself being a losing approach.

“The satellite industry is absolutely area of interest and – in the event that they can tap into connecting billions of smartphones – they will start talking about market sizes which are way greater than they’ve ever been in a position to address before. Every thing before has been within the thousands and thousands,” Caleb Henry, senior analyst at boutique research firm Quilty Analytics, told CNBC.

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A bunch of projects and partners – from Apple, Iridium, SpaceX, T-Mobile and AT&T, amongst others – have come to the fore in 2022, at various stages of development to attach on to smartphones. It’s long been a dream of satellite communications visionaries, but bulky, specialized and typically expensive satellite phones fell in need of mass appeal.

Now, an evolution of technology is revamping the race to perfect space-based communications, in accordance with Patricia Cooper, founding father of Constellation Advisory and former SpaceX vice chairman for satellite government affairs.

“Certainly one of the differences [from earlier generations] is the potential of today’s satellites in low Earth orbit, which suggests that they may have the opportunity to deliver greater than just a skinny type of text, or almost like a pager, service,” Cooper said.

Diverging tech

SpaceX this summer announced a partnership that may allow T-Mobile users to send messages from places unreachable by terrestrial cell towers, utilizing SpaceX’s second generation of Starlink satellites.

CEO Elon Musk said the larger, upgraded Starlink satellites would feature wide antennae that would transmit on to a mobile device, with T-Mobile hoping to eventually add voice calling through the satellites.

While SpaceX has launched greater than 3,000 first generation satellites to this point, adding a direct-to-phone service would require hundreds more.

The partnership is comparable to those made by AST SpaceMobile. The corporate last month put its second test satellite in orbit and has deals with mobile telecoms, including AT&T, Vodafone and Rakuten. The satellite company went public via a SPAC last 12 months and has raised nearly $600 million to this point.

AST’s network would consist of fewer satellites than the Starlink constellation, but still calls for nearly 250 to be deployed for global coverage.

Private enterprise Lynk Global likewise goals to supply a cell tower in space from satellites, with plans for a constellation of several thousand in just a few years. Lynk has raised around $25 million since its founding in 2017. It’s flown five test satellites to orbit to this point.

The corporate announced it sent “the world’s first text message from a satellite in orbit to a normal cell phone on the bottom” in early 2020.

And while some construct out satellite networks, other major players are eyeing Earth-bound innovations, with systems depending on a specialized antenna in phones.

Apple – the leading provider of satellite smartphone communications to this point, albeit in a limited capability to begin – recently announced an emergency feature of iPhone 14 models that leverages the technology. In partnership with Globalstar, the feature allows users to send compressed text messages from iPhone 14s via satellites.

Apple is about to spend greater than $400 million to utilize nearly all of Globalstar’s network and so as to add more satellites to it.

Iridium, a long-time provider of satellite communications to specialized phones, has yet to announce a partner for a direct-to-smartphone service. But CEO Matt Desch last month told CNBC on the 2022 World Satellite Business Week conference that his company has been “working on that chance.”

Iridium expects to finalize a contract with a smartphone partner by the tip of 2022, with Desch having said that “our service goes to be global day one” when it launches.

A ways to go

Corporations must overcome key technological and regulatory hurdles to bring these long-envisioned networks to market.

“The services to this point are all starting out with essentially the most minimally intensive services that they will provide — and that is texting,” Quilty Analytics’ Henry noted. “The true testament of what level of service each of those corporations will have the opportunity to supply is ultimately going to rely on what number of satellites they’re in a position to launch, how powerful the satellites are, and the quantity of spectrum they’ve access to.”

Each Henry and Cooper said the regulatory unknowns around a majority of these services shall be specifically difficult to corporations’ networks. Telecommunications is “a heavily regulated area,” Cooper said, and “there aren’t very many scenarios where the foundations are first arrange for a recent technology innovation.”

She also emphasized the true scope of the market, and the way lucrative it may very well be, stays to be seen.

“I do not think we know the way that is going to be paid for. We do not know whether the market goes to be determined by how much cellular corporations pays satellite corporations to partner and invest [in constellation infrastructure], or whether it is going to be paid by consumers and it is going to add pennies in your bill and that is going to flow through to the satellite corporations,” Cooper said.

“Until we all know that, we won’t know scale,” Cooper added.

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