(Pocket-lint) The next big thing in mobile may be out of this world, literally, with an ever-increasing array of options emerging for satellite-to-cellular communications — or satellite calling.
Using satellites to connect your smartphone to the network can be a game-changer, providing the ability to eliminate dead spots around the world and ensure you’re always connected. We expect there will be a whole bunch of terminology included with the new technology, but you can expect to hear about “satellite communications” in the consumer interface or “Non-Terrestrial Networks (NTN)” in more technical content – and maybe a full load of more terms too .
Why is everyone talking about smartphones and satellites?
There have been increasing discussions about phones and satellites lately, fueled by several different threads of conversation.
First, T-Mobile and SpaceX announced a collaboration designed to provide 100 percent coverage of the United States, allowing T-Mobile customers to access no matter where they are — even in the most remote places.
Second, Apple declared a satellite SOS emergency on the iPhone 14.
Third, Google Senior Vice President Hiroshi Lockheimer just came out and confirmed that Google will support satellite communications in the next version of Android.
All of these leads point to satellite connectivity within existing smartphone hardware, rather than the need for a dedicated one. T-Mobile, for example, said that many of its existing devices will already work with the planned system, so this is very different from what is currently in place with cell phones.
Approval has already been given by 3GPP – the organization that oversees standards development for communications technologies – for NTN 5G networks (those non-terrestrial networks, remember), so there is a coordinated effort to develop and research satellite communications for future devices.
How is satellite communication different from current cellular networks?
Your mobile network is currently based on a terrestrial connection. Your phone connects to a cell tower or base station via radio waves, and that tower is usually physically connected to the infrastructure to send that data anywhere you want it. Normally you’ll connect to a number of cell towers at the same time, allowing for consistent coverage as you move from place to place – but the system depends on one thing: you need a ground connection to make it work.
In remote locations, out of reach of those ground cell towers, there is no reception. You are in a dead spot. This problem can only be resolved if there is some way to get a connection to this site.
Satellites solve this problem by removing the need for terrestrial communication. If your phone is able to communicate with something in the sky, you solve the problem of the lack of physical infrastructure on Earth – but then you need that infrastructure in the sky.
This is what you will communicate with – using radio waves – to enable satellite communication.
Wait, aren’t there cell phones already?
Yes they do. An indispensable accessory for Hollywood heroes or Special Forces teams behind enemy lines, the sight of someone pulling out a chunky station with a big, chubby antenna has marred our screens for years.
Satellite phones are also not uncommon – they are commercially available but are usually expensive, designed to work in remote areas and don’t really have time for consumer features.
Networks are provided by some of the names you might recognize like Inmarsat, Thuraya, or Iridium, with a mixture of satellite systems either geostationary (the former two) or low Earth orbit (the latter).
Low Earth Orbit (LEO) may be more popular lately, because that’s how SpaceX’s Starlink system works, as well as that of OneWeb.
Something more familiar might be Garmin InReach. This uses Iridium for communications and costs from $14.95 a month, along with a $349 price tag for something like the InReach Mini — but effective for satellite calling.
Who will provide the satellites?
We didn’t mention a Starlink offer just at the time – Starlink was already lined up to offer T-Mobile service in the US. With Starlink aiming to achieve global coverage through its satellite service, it would be a fair assumption that agreements could be reached with other network providers in other regions to provide a similar service.
The network that powers the Apple system is Globalstar. Globalstar is a satellite communications company in the United States that has 24 satellites in low Earth orbit and already offers a range of services.
The important thing to note is that there are already satellites in orbit that can provide the required functionality, so there is potential for a combination of these different providers. Much of it may depend on what a satellite can provide from existing technology, how those devices interact with consumer devices, what changes are needed to ground stations and how commercial agreements can be drawn up.
What functions will satellite communication provide?
There are two services that have already been launched. Apple’s service on the iPhone 14 will let you send messages to emergency services in the US and Canada, while Huawei’s system works in China allowing you to send emergency messages.
According to T-Mobile and SpaceX, their initial focus will be SMS messages. The initial phase of communication will focus on simpler forms of communication, but it will expand over time until it provides the type of voice and data connection you are used to.
The goal, in fact, is to provide connectivity to remote places so that users can stay connected, and it may take a while before you can realistically expect to be able to head out into the farthest part of the wilderness and then stream 4K video to your device. phone.
If you want to do that, you might be better off getting a Starlink station. Yes, it is indeed possible, but don’t expect it on the first day of smartphone satellite communications.
But as T-Mobile and SpaceX explain, the goal is to use existing hardware, so you don’t have to go out and buy a dedicated satellite phone. This can be bad news for service providers that already deal with mobile phones.
When will I get a satellite connection on my phone?
Apple has confirmed that its emergency system on the iPhone 14 will be available from November 2022. Huawei has launched a service on the Mate 50 using the Chinese Beidou system. This phone was announced in September 2022.
T-Mobile has already announced Coverage Above and Beyond, saying it will be in beta by the end of 2023.
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while MediaTek has shown working with NTN using existing 5G hardware, and other names like Qualcomm, Ericsson and Thales are also involved in the research, so this may be a mainstream feature sooner than you think.
3GPP said the standard is expected to be formalized by 2022 and commercial products will be available by 2024, but we expect to accelerate that timeline now that Apple has a solution.
Written by Chris Hall.