Satellite players rocket across MWC

Apple, Skylo, Deutsche Telekom and others were among those making noise this week about satellites. And executives in the space expect more progress in the months and weeks ahead.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

March 2, 2023

6 Min Read
Satellite players rocket across MWC

MWC23 – Attendees of the MWC Barcelona trade show here generally couldn't access satellite services from inside the massive, crowded Fira Gran Via venue. They'd have to go outside, to get a view of the sky, to do so.

But that certainly didn't stop a wide range of companies from talking about how satellites will impact the cellular industry.

According to Skylo's Tarun Gupta, there's a clear reason why satellites are such a hot topic right now: It's the new phone-to-satellite messaging services that are hitting the market from the likes of Apple, Huawei and Bullitt. Such services – dubbed "direct to device" (D2D) services by those in the satellite industry – promise to allow regular smartphones to connect to satellites hundreds of miles up in the sky.

Figure 1: (Source: NASA) (Source: NASA)

That represents a major new development considering satellite connections were previously reserved exclusively for dedicated satellite phones, often bulky and expensive ones.

D2D "will drive everything that's happening," said Gupta, a founder of satellite technology and services startup Skylo.

Interestingly, though, Gupta predicted the bulk of satellite-based revenues and network traffic will likely come from Internet of Things (IoT) services, rather than from messages between smartphones and satellites. But he said all the consumer interest and hype in phone-to-satellite messaging will help drive the development of the bigger IoT opportunity.

MWC progress

There was no shortage of news on the satellite front during MWC this week. For example, Germany's Deutsche Telekom said it would work with Intelsat and Skylo to develop satellite-capable IoT services. Similarly, Eastern European operator VEON announced a partnership with satellite operator OneWeb to expand its mobile network into rural areas.

But phone-to-satellite messaging dominated the news cycle, both at MWC and beyond.

Specifically, British ruggedized handset maker Bullitt offered more details about its own satellite-enabled smartphone plans. It also showed off a Bluetooth accessory that brings phone-to-satellite messaging services to any iPhone or Android, for around $250 for a year of services. According to SpaceNews, Bullitt's service runs on technology developed by startup Skylo with chips from MediaTek and satellites operated by the likes of Inmarsat

Separately, smartphone vendors Honor, Motorola, Nothing, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi said they would add satellite capabilities to their phones via Qualcomm's deal with satellite operator Iridium. Similarly, MediaTek – a major competitor to Qualcommshowed off its own phone-to-satellite prowess.

But perhaps the most important news in the D2D industry came from Apple. As noted by SpaceNews, Globalstar announced that Apple would lend it $252 million to help pay for its new satellites. The loan removes the need for Globalstar to seek outside financing and ensures that Globalstar's satellites will continue to support Apple's new iPhone emergency messaging service.

A diversity of strategies

Gupta, of Skylo, explained that the company is using NB-IoT technology to allow both terrestrial and space-based network operators to quickly enter the satellite-connectivity market. He explained that Skylo used NB-IoT in part to develop a link between standard cellular devices and some satellites.

Gupta wouldn't disclose the identity of Skylo's satellite operator partners, but said they're generally ones that don't require proprietary protocols to run across their satellites. As a result, such operators can make use of the cellular industry's NB-IoT protocol, which can be used for satellite communications in addition to the terrestrial IoT services it was initially developed for.

To be clear, Skylo isn't the only company looking to support D2D services. Dan Dooley, from Lynk Global, also attended the MWC trade show in pursuit of business.

Dooley said that T-Mobile's noisy media announcement with Elon Musk's SpaceX last year is motivating other operators to develop a competitive response. Not surprisingly, Lynk offers a D2D option with its small but growing low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation. That constellation is intended to allow terrestrial mobile network operators to provide coverage outside their network footprints via their existing spectrum holdings. Dooley said Lynk is close to raising more money to finance the construction of its constellation.

Lynk today counts deals with roughly two dozen mobile network operators around the world – but so far none in the US. Dooley said Lynk has tested its services over AT&T's spectrum in the US, which is noteworthy considering AT&T has emerged as a vocal supporter of AST SpaceMobile, a rival to Lynk. Both Lynk and SpaceMobile hope to operate LEO constellations that support phone-to-satellite connections in terrestrial operators' licensed spectrum holdings.

The regulatory angle

To be clear, much of what happens in space will require some kind of regulatory approval, whether for the launch of satellites or the repurposing of spectrum. Moreover, the situation is made far more complex by the fact that satellites are global in nature, thus creating the need for satellite players to work with regulators in every single country in the world to offer ubiquitous services.

In the US, FCC officials have pledged to take a fresh look at the agency's rules around phone-to-satellite connections in terrestrial operators' licensed spectrum holdings. That's because current FCC rules generally separate spectrum for satellites from spectrum for ground-based networks. After all, a signal from a satellite in the same spectrum band used by a cell tower on the ground could cause significant interference for users.

"There are challenges with access to airwaves, frequencies that are not all globally aligned, possibilities for interference that must be managed, and standards work that could help grow these capabilities," acknowledged FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a speech at MWC. She said she's proposing a new regulatory framework at the FCC to handle new D2D services.

"Our approach will make it easier for satellite operators collaborating with terrestrial mobile providers to obtain authorization for converged services. We also consider what steps we need to take to protect spectrum rights and avoid harmful interference. By providing clear rules, I believe we can kick start more innovation in the space economy while also expanding wireless coverage in remote, unserved and underserved areas," she said.

But Rosenworcel sought to temper D2D expectations, at least for now. "It is important to remember for now these early space communications projects will not provide high-speed broadband from the stratosphere to our phones. But to start, they could deliver low-bandwidth connectivity," she said.

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

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

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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