Mobile phone giants aim at the satellite field

The release of the iPhone 14 has put satellite phones in the spotlight. Actually, satellite phones are nothing new. The tech industry started working on satellite phones more than 30 years ago, but the results weren't great.

The concept from over 30 years ago

When cell phones first became popular in the late 1980s, it wasn't clear whether the calling network was centered on terrestrial or satellite services. Neither system was particularly well-established at the time. Satellites are attractive because they can provide connectivity in the most remote regions of the planet, including polar regions, at sea, and even on airplanes, where no terrestrial network can cover them. The satellite phone requires clear skies to work, but that hasn't dampened research interest in it. So when Motorola announced its first mobile satellite phone plan, called Iridium, in 1990, cell phone users and investors were excited.

Other companies soon joined the wave, establishing more satellite companies. In 1991, defense contracting firm Loral and Qualcomm formed Globalstar to compete with Motorola's Iridium. Teledesic, backed by investors including telecom billionaires Craig McCaw and Bill Gates, announced plans in 1994 to develop satellites that could provide both voice and data connectivity. Other smaller companies don't want to miss out on this trend and start planning their own networks.

On November 1, 1998, Iridium officially launched the global communication service with the 66 satellites it launched. During the opening ceremony, the first phone call was made by Gore, then vice president of the United States, to Gilbert Grosvenor, great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, over a satellite network. Grosvenor).


However, the high costs of rocket launches, years of getting international government approvals, and the need for spectrum for service have dragged down the satellite phone industry. As a result, by the time Iridium's satellite phone service goes live, terrestrial cellular service will have plenty of time for widespread adoption. To make matters worse, Iridium's satellite phone was bulky when it was released, costing more than $3,000 and charging users as much as $7 (about 50 yuan) per minute for service.

As a result, after spending more than $5 billion and having few users, Iridium filed for bankruptcy protection less than a year after the satellite phone was launched. Teledesic, which also launched only one satellite, shut down operations in 2002. That same year, Globalstar entered bankruptcy protection.

Prakash Sangam, the founder of technology research and consulting firm Tantra Analyst, said other issues contributed to the companies' failure, including satellite phones' limited battery life and the cost of maintaining satellite networks.

A new round of space race

Today, the mobile phone giant has once again set its sights on the satellite field. In September, Apple introduced a satellite SOS feature in its latest iPhone 14 lineup that can send a distress signal from anywhere in the US and Canada. Securities regulator filings show that Apple agreed to pay Globalstar up to $230 million over the next year to buy most of its network capacity. Apple plans to roll out this feature in November.

Apple is just one of the companies entering the satellite smartphone business. Huawei says its latest phones can send one-way emergency messages via the Beidou system. Globalstar rival Iridium said it was developing its own smartphone service with an unnamed partner.

The world's richest man, Elon Musk, also has his eye on satellite phones. The rocket company he leads, SpaceX, said in August that it would partner with U.S. carrier T-Mobile US to make its Starlink service compatible with T-Mobile's network. The companies said they would begin testing the service by the end of 2023.

High risk and challenge

For satellite companies, the stakes for such a bet are high, as each company costs billions of dollars just to launch a launch network. Of course, if these companies can make their services work on a global scale, covering even a fraction of the world's more than 6 billion smartphones, the potential rewards are just as lucrative.

Any true satellite phone service must overcome fundamental challenges. Today's satellite phones require large battery packs that power large antennas to connect to satellites. Businesses also need more powerful smartphones, more sensitive satellites, or a combination of the two, to get high-speed data from space into the hands of ordinary consumers.

Engineers say improved satellite technology and cheaper rockets are key factors in satellite companies being able to fully target the mobile device market. However, these proposals still require billions of dollars in investment to succeed.

In the 1960s, the first space-based communications satellites orbited in geosynchronous orbits more than 22,000 miles (35,000 kilometers) above the equator. The first successful internet satellites also occupied the same high orbital space. This orbit is synchronized with the Earth's rotation and maintains a constant position in the sky, allowing for greater coverage. However, long-distance links have high power requirements on both satellites and linking equipment on the ground. The signal round trip takes more than 500 milliseconds, which is a long time for modern Internet applications.

Other companies have compromised, using medium-Earth orbits that are closer to the Earth's surface. However, such orbits often require bulky, rugged equipment to withstand solar radiation from the outer Van Allen Belts.

Today, most space companies eyeing the mobile market operate in low-Earth orbits of 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometers) or lower, flying satellites in close proximity to customers on the ground. Such orbits require satellites to zip through space at more than 17,000 miles per hour (27,000 kilometers per hour), requiring a large number of satellites to cover any location on Earth for more than a few minutes.

Regulatory approval

For satellite networks to flourish, satellite company executives need more than just engineering know-how and deep pockets. They also need licensing. Businesses must navigate a tangled web of domestic and international regulations. These regulations govern not only the satellites they launch, but also the voice and data services they plan to provide.

The International Telecommunication Union, an agency of the United Nations, oversees the registration of fleets of satellites that implicate many countries. Companies that want to build satellite fleets have to register with the International Telecommunication Union, and then usually they have to get a license from the country their satellites cover. National agencies also govern services through regulations that often favor first movers that have already launched satellites.

For example, Globalstar and Iridium have been licensed in many countries to transmit data using lower frequencies that are considered more suitable for connecting to the smallest devices on the ground.

The ITU registration does not prevent new satellite companies from using the same airwaves, although it often creates new hurdles for companies as they have to demonstrate that their new fleet of satellites will not interfere with other satellites already using those airwaves. That flexibility has allowed SpaceX's broadband business to thrive, despite the company's lack of major licenses.

Still, many countries are asking latecomers to demonstrate that their plans will not interfere with existing space networks that are already operating. Established satellite companies say the licenses they have accumulated over the years put them ahead of newer startups.

Mobile phone users should manage their expectations for satellite phones. The first version of the technology was a big step forward for mobile phones, but it may not bring the coveted "always-on" life anytime soon.

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