As anticipation of a growing range of satellite-to-cellular – or satellite communication – options grows, the next big thing in mobile telephony could literally be out of this world.
The use of satellites to connect your smartphone to the network could be a game changer, allowing you to eliminate dead spots around the world and stay in touch at all times. We anticipate a plethora of terms associated with the new technology, but you can expect to hear about “satellite communication” on the consumer front or “non-terrestrial networks (NTN)” in more technical content – and probably a plethora of other terms as well.
Recently, there has been an increase in discussion about phones and satellites, fueled by several different threads of discussion. First, T-Mobile and SpaceX announced a collaboration to provide 100 percent coverage for the United States, giving T-Mobile customers access no matter where they are – even in remote locations.
Second, Ming-Chi Kuo, an analyst, speculated that the iPhone 14 might support satellite communication.
Third, Google SVP Hiroshi Lockheimer recently confirmed that satellite communication would be supported in the next version of Android.
All of these threads point to satellite connectivity being possible using existing smartphone hardware rather than a dedicated device. T-Mobile, for example, stated that many of its existing devices would be compatible with the proposed system, which is very different from what is currently in place with satellite phones.
The 3GPP – the organisation that oversees standards development for communications technologies – has already approved 5G NTNs (non-terrestrial networks, remember) so there is a coordinated effort in place to develop and research satellite communication for future devices.
What differs satellite communication from current cellular networks?
Your mobile phone network currently relies on a terrestrial connection. Your phone uses radio waves to connect to a cell tower or base station, and that tower is usually physically connected to the infrastructure to send data wherever it needs to go. Typically, you’ll connect to a number of cell towers at the same time, providing constant coverage as you move from place to place – but the system is dependent on one thing: a terrestrial connection.
There is no reception in remote areas that are beyond the reach of those terrestrial cell towers. You’ve reached a stalemate. That problem can only be solved if a connection to that location can be established.
Satellites solve this issue by eliminating the need for a terrestrial connection. If your phone can communicate with something in the sky, you solve the problem of a lack of physical infrastructure on the ground – but you still need that infrastructure in the sky.
Don't we already have satellite phones?
They do, indeed. The image of someone pulling out a bulky terminal with a huge fat antenna has graced our screens for years. It is the essential gear for Hollywood heroes or special operations teams operating behind enemy lines.
Sat phones are also widespread; they are commercially available, although they are often pricey, made for use in remote locations, and lack many consumer functions. Networks are provided by companies such as Inmarsat, Thuraya, and Iridium, which use a combination of geostationary (for the first two) and low Earth orbital satellite systems (the latter).
Low Earth orbital (LEO) may be more familiar recently because it is how SpaceX’s Starlink and the OneWeb system operate.
Garmin InReach is a more familiar option. This communicates via the Iridium network and costs $14.95 per month, as opposed to $349 for something like the InReach Mini – but it is effectively a satellite communicator.
Who will also provide the satellites?
We didn’t just mention Starlink casually; Starlink is already set to provide T-Mobile service in the United States. And, given that Starlink’s satellite service aims for global coverage, it stands to reason that similar agreements could be reached with other network providers in other regions to provide a similar service.
Globalstar is rumoured to power Apple’s system. Globalstar is a satellite communication company based in the United States that currently operates 24 LEO satellites and offers a variety of services.
The important thing to remember is that there are already satellites in orbit that can perform the required functions, so there is potential for a variety of different service providers. Much depends on what the satellite can provide using existing technology, how it interfaces with consumer hardware, and how commercial agreements can be worked out.
When will satellite communication be available on my phone?
T-Mobile has already announced Coverage Above and Beyond, with the company claiming that it will be in beta by the end of 2023.
Rumours suggest that Apple’s iPhone has already been tested, though there is no confirmation, while Huawei is expected to launch the Mate 50, which will work on the BeiDou Navigation Satellite system, allowing emergency messaging services once again.
Meanwhile, MediaTek has demonstrated collaboration with an NTN using existing 5G hardware, and other companies such as Qualcomm, Ericsson, and Thales are also involved in research, so this could all happen sooner than you think.
According to 3GPP, a standard will be formalized by 2022, and commercial products will be available by 2024. Mobile phones may become much more mobile in the coming years.