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LEO satellite communications come to Earth

Apple, T-Mobile and others are kicking off early satellite communications projects. Direct satellite communications should become available on some new midband 5G phones in 2024.

Imagine the ability to use a mobile phone anywhere in the world, whether on land or sea.

That's the potential direct satellite-to-cellphone services can bring, and services have started to arrive in limited offerings. Major technology companies, mobile network operators and satellite providers -- such as Apple and T-Mobile -- have announced their plans to launch direct satellite-to-cellphone services.

Editor's note: Emerging satellite technologies, like direct satellite-to-cellular and low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, currently focus on consumer markets for mobile phones. But enterprises can also consider implementing satellite options into their network designs to provide high-speed connectivity to rural locations and users.

Apple satellite communications

In September 2022, Apple announced it will use Globalstar's LEO constellation to provide an emergency SOS via satellite service for its latest iPhone 14 models. Apple built an internal antenna at the top of the iPhone 14's case, so customers who want to use the service must point their phones directly at the sky to catch an orbiting Globalstar satellite.

The service released on Nov. 15 in the U.S. and Canada through a software update. Apple said it plans to roll out the service in other countries in the coming months. It will be free for the first two years, but Apple hasn't said how much it will cost, if at all, after that.

T-Mobile satellite communications

In August 2022, T-Mobile and SpaceX partnered to launch a similar scheme for direct satellite-to-cellphone communications. T-Mobile's service, like Apple's, will initially deliver only texts and calls.

The service relies on SpaceX launching its second-generation Starlink LEO satellites -- which carry larger phased array antennas than first-generation models -- to enable communications.

The Federal Communications Commission still needs to approve SpaceX's new Starlink satellites. Once SpaceX receives the approval, the company intends to launch a second-generation Starlink satellite swarm through 2023.

At the launch event, T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert said he expects the satellite communications service to be in beta by late next year. The Starlink satellites will connect to most T-Mobile phones with their new antennas, along with a portion of personal communications service midband 5G spectrum on the ground.

5G in orbit

The 3rd Generation Partnership Project froze Release 17 of the 5G specification in March 2022, and a new update will be commercially available sometime in 2024. It includes a nonterrestrial network satellite communications aspect for the first time. The network spec targets midband 5G phones that support the European Global Navigation Satellite System technology.

According to Phil Solis, research director of wireless and mobile connectivity technologies and semiconductors at IDC, the plan to introduce nonterrestrial satellite networks into the 5G New Radio standard has been in the works for some time now, and it continues to be in development. Solis said nonterrestrial satellite networks will likely become more of a reality with 6G.

Experts predict commercial 6G will arrive around 2030. Solis said he expects that texting, third-party messaging apps and emergency calls will constitute most of the early direct satellite-to-cellphone communication. Solis said the next satellite service to release will be broadband-like mobile services.

Delayed 5G standards initially prolonged the release of the service, Solis said, but standards have since matured and propelled development. He said other potential roadblocks ahead include how much Capex companies are willing to invest to release these services and how fast they're willing to set up new satellites.

It will also be a challenge to implement satellite communications into phones because the devices need to support additional frequency bands. But, despite these challenges, Solis said carriers will still enter the satellite communications space.

"LEO satellites are a hot area, and there will be a lot of competition," he said.

Several direct satellite-to-cellular projects could be in the sky by the end of 2023. Emergency communications will be the priority for the early services. Before direct satellite offers these capabilities, however, a lot of money and time will go into this new sector.

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