Space 5G Changes Course

Space 5G Changes Course

It’s the season for space-based cellular service, courtesy of a recent string of announcements from companies around the world. Huawei upgraded its China-only satellite service from messaging to video calling this summer using its latest handset, the Mate 60 Pro, while AST SpaceMobile made its first 5G voice and data call using its prototype BlueWalker 3 satellite and a standard Samsung Galaxy S22. Apple’s September announcement of its latest mobile telephone mentioned the subtle expansion of its emergency satellite messaging service to include roadside assistance.

The flurry of activity adds up to a sign that companies are making progress on providing cellular service via satellite.“I would say that most of the initiatives have moved from establishment phase to consolidation phase,” says Derek Long, the head of telecommunications at Cambridge Consultants.

Yet consolidation does not necessarily mean the companies are meeting the goals they set last year. At the start of 2023, I reported on predictions from these companies and others regarding their expected progress this year. Now, in October, after a summer of milestones, it seems fair to check in on how those predictions fared.

“Expectations for space-based cellular networks got ahead of themselves last year, but now companies are becoming more realistic about how challenging it will be to develop more advanced capabilities.” —Tim Farrar, consultant, Tim Farrar Associates

AST SpaceMobile, a public company, said late last year that it planned to launch its first five commercial satellites late in 2023. As of press time, AST was still testing the capabilities of its one-year-old BlueWalker 3 satellite, and a representative said it was now planning to launch its first commercial satellites in early 2024. Their successful test voice satellite call is a “considerable” achievement, Long says, but much will depend on how much more capacity the company manages to launch.

Apple made no promises, but I predicted that Apple’s competitors would be “unlikely to see commercial operations before 2024.” That turned out to be wrong, when just one day before the story ran, Huawei began offering comparable satellite messaging via the China Telecom network for users of its then-new Mate 50 smartphone. The satellites behind Apple’s service belong to Globalstar, which this year reported additional funding from Apple to launch at least 17 satellites in 2025 in return for 85 percent of Globalstar’s bandwidth.

Huawei did not respond to a recent request for an update, but in late August 2023 it released its next satellite-capable mobile phone. The phone, in addition to disquieting U.S. government officials with its processing power, has a chip dedicated to satellite communications. Eighty minutes of satellite calling costs 100 Chinese yuan (approximately US $13.71) and 200 minutes costs 200 yuan (approximately $27.42).

Lynk Global, a privately held company, said late last year that by spring of 2023 it would be “offering commercial service to its [mobile network operator] partners.” On 21 June, just one day behind its deadline, Lynk announced its first commercial offering—for emergency broadcasting services—in Palau. In August, it announced a similar deal in the Cook Islands.

T-Mobile USA did not answer requests for comment on its progress since an August 2022 announcement that it would partner with SpaceX to offer satellite-based messaging and data service, and it has not offered the promised service to customers. Nor have T-Mobile or SpaceX issued any new press releases addressing satellite cellular service since last year’s announcement. If it ever does work, the network will be designed to be backward-compatible with most existing 4G mobile devices.

Right now, Lynk is the only company offering a backward-compatible service, and AST is aiming to be next. Apple/Globalstar and Huawei/China Telecom services work for their very latest handsets (and will work with future devices), which have chips tuned to the bandwidth those companies have obtained from their legacy satellite networks.

“Expectations for space-based cellular networks got ahead of themselves last year, but now companies are becoming more realistic about how challenging it will be to develop more advanced capabilities that go beyond the basic messaging available on the iPhone,” says telecommunications consultant Tim Farrar, of Tim Farrar Associates in Menlo Park, Calif.

An emerging avenue for satellite-device growth is the Internet of Things, Long says. Sateliot, for example, is a small startup that this summer connected a standard IoT device to its space-based 5G-IoT network. Sateliot has deals with mobile network operators around the world to start commercializing access and faces competition from other startups such as Lacuna Space, OQ Technology, and major incumbents. “They are providing global IoT connectivity at extremely low cost,” Long says, either of which may help it accelerate the so far slow-to-take-off IoT market.

In fact, Globalstar is already generating a fast-growing fraction of its non-Apple revenues from IoT offerings, and at the most recent Mobile World Congress its CEO said the company was aiming for the private IoT market.

So we may not all be able to stream video over satellite networks from our phones just yet, but region by region, and use case by use case, telecom companies are starting to lash orbiting satellites to the global cellular network.

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