Untangling the iPhone 13 rumors around Globalstar's LEO satellites

A new report indicates Apple's next iPhone could connect directly to satellites, allowing users to make calls and send texts when they're outside of cellular coverage areas.

At least, that's what some headlines indicate. The truth may be a little more nuanced.

According to MacRumors, TF International Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo issued a note to investors speculating on Apple's next phone, the iPhone 13. According to Kuo, the gadget will feature a "customized" X60 chip from Qualcomm that can connect to Globalstar's low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.

"Kuo explained that the 'simplest scenario' for providing LEO connectivity to users is if individual network operators work with Globalstar," according to MacRumors. "This means that customers of a partner network operator could use Globalstar's satellite communication service on the ‌iPhone 13‌ directly through their network operator with no additional contracts or payments required."

The report helped shock Globalstar's stock from around $1.40 per share last week to as high as $2.30 per share Monday afternoon.

"The prospect of Globalstar's [LEO] constellation potentially being available to billions of smartphone owners is tantalizing," wrote the financial analysts at B. Riley Securities in a note to investors Monday.

Looking beyond terrestrial connections

To be clear, this isn't the first time Apple has reportedly flirted with satellites. At the end of 2019, Bloomberg reported that Apple's Tim Cook was personally interested in a research project at the company that would use satellites to bypass terrestrial wireless networks.

Plus, Apple isn't alone in that regard. For example, the B. Riley Securities analysts noted that Google filed a series of patent applications involving Android smartphones jumping to LEO satellites when cellular signals are unavailable. And Iridium told Light Reading earlier this year that new 5G specifications "could allow satellite connectivity to future 5G phones, albeit not at speeds people associate with 5G."

As for Globalstar, the company did ink a spectrum agreement with a mystery customer in 2020 that has so far generated $30 million in revenues. According to the B. Riley Securities analysts, speculation about the identity of that customer has ranged "from Dish to Google, and now Apple."

Satellite ambitions hit the ground

But Sascha Segan, with PCMag, suggested on Twitter that the Globalstar spectrum supported by Qualcomm's chips might be used to augment existing terrestrial cellular networks, rather than to directly connect to satellites. After all, the satellite phones currently available from Globalstar sport sizable antennas that might not appeal to Apple's iPhone designers.

Indeed, Globalstar has already announced it will support a terrestrial private wireless network in Seattle with its 2.4GHz S-band spectrum, dubbed Band 53. That's the same band Qualcomm plans to support with its X65 chipset for smartphones.

Moreover, other companies are moving to build LEO networks that will connect to a wide range of existing smartphones, not just the iPhone 13. For example, both Lynk and AST SpaceMobile expect to begin offering commercial satellite services to terrestrial mobile network operators in the next few years. They plan to do so by transmitting signals from their satellites to existing smartphones using the spectrum bands already owned by operators like Rakuten and AT&T.

But that's not stopping some executives from wading into the iPhone 13 rumor mill.

"News on the chip expected on the iPhone 13 is good for more frequencies and performance," tweeted Abel Avellan, the CEO of AST SpaceMobile, on Monday. AST SpaceMobile recently became a public company. "To access LEO broadband by cell phone, SpaceMobile's patented large and powerful satellites are the key."

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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