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Companies like AST SpaceMobile and Lynk Global are lining up financing, while SpaceX, Rogers and T-Mobile are testing out services. As a result, the direct-to-cell market is gathering steam.
January 3, 2024
The direct-to-cell sector didn't seem to take much of a breather during the holidays, with players ranging from SpaceX to Lynk Global making waves throughout the latter days of December 2023 and the early days of January 2024.
Some companies announced tests, some scored new funding, some argued for more favorable federal regulations, and some chartered a new strategic course. None of that is a surprise considering phone-to-satellite connections require a significant amount of technical expertise, regulatory know-how, and cash to get those satellites into orbit.
Regardless, companies making noise in the market recently include Rogers, T-Mobile, Lynk, SpaceX, AST SpaceMobile, Qualcomm, MidWave Wireless, EchoStar, Rivada Space Networks and Globalstar.
Here's a summary of recent developments in the sector, broken down by topic:
SpaceX and T-Mobile this week announced that the rocket company successfully launched its first six Starlink satellites capable of broadcasting signals in T-Mobile's spectrum holdings. That paves the way for the companies to begin testing direct-to-cell services, thanks to an "experimental special temporary authorization" from the FCC for tests in around a dozen locations including Mountain View, California; Kansas City, Kansas; Redmond, Washington; and Dallas, Texas, among others. The effort represents a slight delay from the companies' previous plans of testing the service in 2023.
Rogers and Lynk said they successfully tested a phone-to-satellite voice call using a Samsung Galaxy S22 smartphone. "We're proud to work with Lynk to bring Canadians the very latest global technology that will give them access to 911 and wireless services," said Tony Staffieri, Rogers' CEO, in a release. Rogers is moving forward with direct-to-cell services from both Lynk and SpaceX.
AST SpaceMobile this week announced it is hoping to close its funding efforts this month "with multiple parties." The company added that it had "secured initial ground infrastructure orders from two customers for planned commercial service," but it did not provide details. AT&T has been a vocal proponent of AST SpaceMobile in the US.
Lynk in December announced it would merge with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) called Slam – backed by former US professional baseball player Alex Rodriguez – in a move that could have given the company access to more than $500 million in funding. However, as noted by Advanced Television, Slam now has to return $176 million to its initial investors who have chosen a refund rather than going ahead with the proposed merger. But the deal is still on.
SpaceX, meantime, reached "breakeven cashflow" in November, giving the privately held company a total valuation of an estimated $150 billion. However, according to SpaceNews, SpaceX chief Elon Musk said he has no plans to pursue a SpaceX initial public offering (IPO). "I don't think it's worth going public until you have an extremely stable and predictable revenue stream," he said in late December. "If your cash flows are extremely stable and predictable, at that point going public is less of an issue."
Finally, Dish Network officially closed its transaction with satellite company EchoStar. The move is designed to help finance Dish's 5G network buildout and, potentially, to add satellite capabilities to Dish's 5G network. "The combined company is uniquely positioned to deliver a broad set of communication and content distribution capabilities, accelerating the delivery of satellite and wireless connectivity solutions desired by customers," according to the new company.
Lynk continued to argue for comprehensive rules around phone-to-satellite connections as part of the FCC's proceeding into Supplemental Coverage from Space (SCS) services.
MidWave Wireless – a new name in the direct-to-cell sector – also reiterated its interest in the industry. "MidWave holds all 64 licenses in the 1.4GHz band," the company told the FCC. "This allows coverage across 100% of the US population and removes coordination and inter-operator protection mechanisms that would otherwise compromise SCS deployment." Interestingly, one of the executives working with MidWave is John Dooley, managing director of Jarvinian Ventures. Dooley is also working with NextWave on its private wireless efforts.
Finally, the Rural Wireless Association (RWA) urged the FCC to prevent satellite companies from participating in the agency's upcoming 5G Fund program. "Not only could legacy high-cost support carriers be stripped of their legacy support, but legacy carriers could lose at auction to satellite operators with an unproven and unknown technological solution. Further education on how this technology would coexist with existing terrestrial operations is necessary before the future of our 5G rural networks is put at stake," the firm wrote.
While companies like Lynk and SpaceX have been touting progress, others struggle to find the right path forward.
For example, Qualcomm dropped out of its direct-to-cell partnership with Iridium last year. According to Lluc Palerm Serra with Analysys Mason's NSR, that deal fell apart partly because Qualcomm and Iridium didn't make room for mobile network operators (MNOs) in their plans. "MNOs' relationships with end users mean that MNOs must play a major role in order for the model to scale," he wrote. The situation, he said, didn't sit well with top Qualcomm customers like Samsung.
Nevertheless, Analysys Mason continues to forecast that the direct-to-cell market will reach $100 million in revenues in the next year or two on the back of emergency and text messaging services. The firm predicts it will reach $10 billion within a decade via the addition of voice and data services.
Those figures continue to entice players to the market. For example, Rivada Space Networks made an unspecified payment to satellite manufacturer Terran Orbital for its planned constellation. According to TechCrunch, Terran Orbital said Rivada is now up-to-date on all its outstanding invoices.
But another player in the market now appears to be taking a different tack. Globalstar helped usher in the direct-to-cell craze by supporting the emergency messaging service Apple debuted on the iPhone 14 in 2022. But today Globalstar's new CEO, former Qualcomm chief Paul Jacobs, is pursuing strategies that mostly appear centered on private wireless networking rather than phone-to-satellite connections.
Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading
Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.
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