Viasat, EchoStar and Iridium hint at cellular-to-satellite interest

Companies like SpaceX, AST SpaceMobile, Globalstar and Lynk Global have been loudly discussing the possibility of connecting regular smartphones directly to their satellites. Indeed, Lynk recently boasted of $2.3 billion in commercial contracts with almost two dozen mobile network operators for direct cellular-to-satellite services. But they aren't the only ones that expect to play in the market.

Executives from EchoStar, Viasat, Iridium, Sateliot and others said recently that they intend to play in the sector at some point, arguing that the opportunity is big enough to support a wide range of players.

"We are very focused on it. We understand the opportunity. We understand the size of the market perhaps better than anybody else," said Hamid Akhavan, the new CEO of satellite operator EchoStar. He made his comments during the company's recent quarterly conference call, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript.

(Source: NASA)
(Source: NASA)

But despite the satellite companies' bullish outlook, some analysts are cautioning patience.

"Spoiler alert – those fed up with their national wireless carriers shouldn't look to satellite smartphone connectivity service to replace them," wrote Jeff Johnston in an October report on the market from CoBank.

Johnston argued that established, terrestrial wireless network operators like T-Mobile and AT&T likely won't see direct competition from space-based networks anytime soon. "Their core wireless business is not at risk of being cannibalized by satellite operators because the costs are enormous and unjustified," he explained. "Instead, a better option for wireless operators would be to partner with Apple – and most likely Samsung – by bundling their satellite service with the carrier's plans."

A wait-and-see game

EchoStar's Akhavan conceded that the smartphone-to-satellite market will take time to develop as phone-to-satellite technology standards are agreed upon and vendors develop suitable chipsets, phones and satellites. He suggested that the process will take several years to play out.

"No single player in the market can walk in and say, 'I have it all'," Akhavan explained. "It will require the collaboration and partnership of a number of players to make that work. That's why it takes time. And that's why it also is not prudent to make announcements unilaterally when you don't have all of the elements ... required to develop that ecosystem and all the agreements and financials in place were it to become a reality. That's why you are not going to hear from us any sort of premature announcements."

This isn't the first time EchoStar executives have discussed connecting smartphones to satellites. Billionaire Charlie Ergen, who owns a majority of the voting shares in both EchoStar and Dish Network (a company building a 5G network in the US), has repeatedly suggested some kind of future pairing between the two.

A crowded field

Viasat CEO Mark Dankberg is also bullish on cellular-to-satellite. "It is going to create really good opportunities for us," he said during his company's quarterly conference call. Viasat's proposed merger with Inmarsat will create a company with global spectrum holdings that can be immediately applied to the phone-to-satellite sector, he added.

"So the real issue is going to be scale," Dankberg said, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript. "And scale is going to mean speed and the number of simultaneous users [supported on a satellite system]. Because that is going to have a big impact on the types of services you can bring to market."

But Dankberg also noted that speedy connections on phones via satellites are "two to three years out at least."

Iridium CEO Matt Desch also discussed the topic during his company's quarterly conference call but declined to provide details about its mysterious smartphone deal.

"We already have a global license to operate from satellites to any small device on the ground, including a smartphone," he said, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript. "There is no approvals required or more landing rights that we don't have today. So really it's just a matter of adding that capability. I won't say any more about how we added because I think that's what we've left to the announcement in future."

Viasat, EchoStar and Iridium would join Globalstar, Omnispace, SpaceX, Lynk and AST SpaceMobile in operating satellites that may connect to phones. However, SpaceX, Lynk and AST SpaceMobile don't own spectrum for such services. They are hoping to obtain regulatory approval to conduct transmissions using terrestrial operators' spectrum holdings.

Beyond phones

Smartphones aren't the only targets for satellite connectivity. Several startups are hoping to apply the same concept to Internet of Things devices, potentially connecting millions of existing IoT gadgets directly to satellites in locations where terrestrial networks aren't available.

eSAT and Sateliot, for example, are hoping to introduce satellites and technologies to power global IoT services, including for existing cellular narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) devices. Sateliot recently announced plans to launch its first functional nanosatellite in the first quarter of next year on a SpaceX rocket. So far, the company has launched two satellites and plans to launch four more by the end of 2023, CEO Jaume Sanpera told DCD.

Other satellite operators chasing the IoT opportunity include OQ Technology and SpaceX's Swarm.

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

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