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Satellites Directly to Cellphones

AT&T and satellite company AST SpaceMobile announced a partnership to provide satellite cellular service directly from satellites to cellphones. This will provide a service that is much needed for the billions of remote users who are not in the range of a cell tower.

This is an emerging industry that is still being referred to by different acronyms. Direct-to-Device, or D2D seems to be emerging as a popular term. The FCC has been calling this Supplemental Coverage from Space (SCS). Others have been referring to this as Direct-to-Cell Phone.

AST offers a unique satellite technology that is far different than what can be used for broadband satellites like the ones being deployed by Starlink. The AST satellites have a large surface area, which provides the ability to shape the signal to reach cellphones and to receive the signal back directly from a phone.

The company claims that the large satellites will be able to process up to one million simultaneous calls. The satellites will also be able to provide some broadband capability. AST is also using both low- and mid-band frequencies to increase connectivity options to and from users. Backhaul will likely be accomplished through links to AT&T ground stations.

The first AST launch will include five satellites in July or August that will be operational in about three months after launch. The satellites will be circling the globe at a high speed, and initial customers will only be able to make calls when the satellites are overhead. The company needs at least 45 satellites to provide constant connectivity and, over time, will likely keep adding satellites to improve overall capacity.

There are a lot of other players interested in pursuing the lucrative market that could include as many as 5 billion customers worldwide for folks who live, work, or travel to remove places. Here in the U.S., there are still huge parts of rural America with terrible cellular coverage.

  • Apple started the race by providing links directly from satellites to devices in 2022 when it announced that the iPhone 14 had the capability of connecting to Globalstar satellites for emergency text messages. Apple has invested more than $450 million to help Globalstar upgrade its ground stations.
  • Later, in 2022, SpaceX announced a partnership with T-Mobile to also allow emergency texting. SpaceX had previously acquired Swarm in 2021 to try to develop the technology.
  • In early 2023, Qualcomm announced that its Snapdragon chip could connect directly to the Iridium satellite network to relay emergency text messages.
  • Lynk Global is working on constructing a fleet of satellites. The company has three test satellites in orbit. Lynk is collaborating with over 40 worldwide cellular carriers.
  • MediaTek has developed a satellite-compatible chipset that can connect to a Bullitt platform to use high-orbit GEO satellites from Inmarsat and Echostar.
  • Huawei and China Telecom have developed emergency calling and are working to deploy a LEO satellite constellation.
  • Deloitte predicted at the end of last year that 200 million smartphones will be sold in 2024 that contain the capability of connecting directly to a satellite.

There is a lot of demand for seamless cellular connectivity. People who travel around the world get frustrated by cell phones that only work in some countries. People who work daily in rural areas are frustrated as they move in and out of cell coverage. The ability to provide cellphone broadband could bring Internet connectivity to billions of people who are still not able to connect to an ISP. This service could also provide connectivity to remote sensors and other devices located out of reach of terrestrial networks.

This is going to be an interesting market, and it’s likely to be a huge one. It’s not unexpected to see AT&T jump into the fray to chase a huge new revenue stream.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting

Dawson has worked in the telecom industry since 1978 and has both a consulting and operational background. He and CCG specialize in helping clients launch new broadband markets, develop new products, and finance new ventures.

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