During a recent session at the MWC Barcelona trade show, rivals to SpaceX – including OneWeb, Lynk and Sateliot – pledged a no-worries, no-capex approach to space-based communications.

Rob Pegoraro, Contributor, Light Reading

March 4, 2024

5 Min Read
Dan Dooley, chief commercial officer of Lynk Global, presents his company's vision at the MWC Barcelona trade show.
Dan Dooley, chief commercial officer of Lynk Global, presents his company's vision at the MWC Barcelona trade show.(Source: Light Reading / Rob Pegoraro)

MWC24 – BARCELONA – SpaceX's Starlink has won an outsized role in satellite-to-phone connectivity, even if its early lead in low-Earth-orbit broadband has yet to yield commercial service to any handsets. But speakers on a panel at the recent MWC Barcelona trade show suggested that there's ample space left for rival services and rival business models.

One common element among the sales pitches of three of these services: no drama and no worries for existing carriers.

"What I'm talking about is connecting to your phone," said Dan Dooley, chief commercial officer of Lynk Global. "The phone in your pocket today."

"We are developing a satellite connection that connects globally standard 5G IoT devices," said Jaume Sanpera Izoard, CEO of Sateliot.

"We are coming from a telecommunications world where we know what 5-nines is," said Laurence Delpy, general manager of the video business unit at Eutelsat, which owns OneWeb. The phrase "5-nines" refers to a 99.999% reliability level common in telecom networks.

Starting simple 

Those three firms don't operate thousands of satellites like Starlink, but they're also not looking to duplicate the carrier-specific service that T-Mobile plans to launch on direct-to-cell spacecraft in the SpaceX constellation.

"Any 3GPP phone can connect to the satellite in orbit," Dooley explained of Lynk's offering. "We're actually able to tell the phone in your pocket that our satellite, which is actually 524 km up, is actually next to it."

Falls Church, Virginia-based Lynk has been signing up carriers outside the US to its platform on the proposition of cheap network expansion, initially for messaging only.

"From an MNO [mobile network operator] point of view, they're able to extend their network without doing a lot of capex," he said.

"Right now, it's starting with sort of texting, IoT, emergency alerts," Dooley continued. "But this is quickly going to scale to applications we love, which is voice and data."

Speaking before him, Sateliot's Izoard centered on machines instead of messages in Sateliot's pitch.

"For the end user, it's a seamless experience," he said. "For the MNOs, it's a new revenue stream – capex free."

Sateliot aims to have its constellation connecting IoT devices by the second half of 2024, and Izoard emphasized how the Barcelona company doesn't need to launch much hardware to get there – four satellites will suffice to start service.

"We can deliver service years ahead from everyone else," he said. "Our go-to-market requires marginal capex."

IoT has shown up on SpaceX's radar, as seen in its 2021 purchase of the IoT firm Swarm. But SpaceX's public focus on carriers has centered on phones connecting to satellites.

Eutelsat's OneWeb operation – in September, the two firms merged – offers the most direct comparison to Starlink, in the form of its completed low-Earth-orbit (LEO) constellation of 600-plus satellites. But Delpy, the Eutelsat executive, underscored how Eutelsat's geostationary satellites complement that service and ensure no dead zones (at the unstated cost of high latency in geostationary-linked spots).

"We are the only multi-orbit, GEO and LEO satellite constellation," she said. Calling it "not so simple," she added: "But we have done it, and we are ready to go."

And partner carriers such as Telstra should not have to worry about getting upstaged: "We are not targeting to go and take their market share."

Carrier-to-constellation cooperation

Another speaker on the panel – Isabelle Mauro, director general of the satellite trade group GSOA – picked up the peaceful-coexistence theme.

"We are really at a unique moment in which we are really seeing an increasing collaboration between different industries coming together," she said. "We all understand, really, the importance of joining forces."

(A slide in her presentation of GSOA's member firms included the usual telecom suspects but not SpaceX.)

Delpy pointed to the potential customers left without any signal.

"We now expect to be connected all the time and everywhere," she said. "But there are still 2.6 billion people out there that are not connected."

A discussion after those presentations led by Alexandra Rehak, head of industrial and energy innovation at Cambridge Consultants, surfaced other details about the service-launch plans of  these firms.

Dooley answered her question about revenue streams by suggesting a bifurcated pricing model for satellite-augmented carriers: charge prepaid customers extra when they need service from space, include it in the monthly rate for premium, postpaid subscribers.

Izoard concurred: "It's absolutely a new revenue stream that is coming from these unconnected regions, where there is no other way to be connected."

The speakers also agreed on the importance of sticking to standards – which came off as an implicit rebuke to Apple's proprietary, emergency-only product and Qualcomm's scrubbed attempt to launch satellite connectivity on Iridium's network. 

Mauro, of GSOA, chimed in: "We need to make sure that all of these devices are going to speak to each other."

Regulators – whose perspective was absent from this panel – got less haranguing than one might expect. 

"Technology is already 10 steps ahead of what the policymaker is thinking or doing," Mauro observed.

But Dooley offered a thumbs-up to the regulatory framework the FCC is set to vote on at its March meeting. "I'm positive it will be favorable to this sat-to-phone industry."

The commercial reality of direct-to-cell service, however, will depend not on PowerPoint decks or FCC PDFs but on what service people get on the ground on their devices.

Dooley offered his own proof in his presentation, a video of a call placed by Lynk's New Zealand partner 2 Degrees from a national park with zero terrestrial service.

The content of that call – "Do you want to hear a dad joke? It's pretty cold in space, but it just got 2 degrees cooler" – may not equate to Thomas Edison's "Mr. Watson, come here – I want to see you," but it will have to do.

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About the Author(s)

Rob Pegoraro

Contributor, Light Reading

Rob Pegoraro covers telecom, computers, gadgets, apps, and other things that beep or blink from the D.C. area since the mid-1990s. In addition to right here, you can find his work at such places as USA Today, Fast Company and Wirecutter, you can e-mail him at [email protected], find him on Twitter as @robpegoraro, and read more at robpegoraro.com.

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