Disrupting the Sat-coms Sector

Over the past few weeks, we have seen two major announcements about how we may be able to access satellite communications with a standard mobile telephone. Currently, the four main operators providing satellite telephone services are Inmarsat, Iridium, Thuraya and GlobalStar. To access these networks, a dedicated satellite telephone is required. As these networks are proprietary, it is not possible to use a satellite telephone from one network on any of the other networks.

The big announcements: Recently, Elon Musk announced that the next generation of StarLink Satellites would allow people to make calls using a standard mobile telephone (4G). The service in partnership with T-Mobile where mobile phones could roam onto the satellite service when outside of standard terrestrial services.

The second announcement is from Apple where they stated that the new iPhone 14 would have the capability to send text alerts via its satellite partner GlobalStar. This satellite operator covers around 80% of the global land mass and already has a range of small products to send text alerts for adventurers walking of climbing in remote areas. The Apple/GlobalStar partnership does not provide full voice or data services, but it is sufficient for people to get help in remote areas.

AST Space Mobile:  The concept of using a standard mobile phone with Satellites is not new. AST & Science and its Space Mobile technology came to my attention in 2020 when they announced that they would be launching satellites to provide 4G and 5G services from space. According to AST & Science, they plan to launch a new satellite this month (Sep 2022).

The announcement from StarLink is very significant and with a fleet of a few thousand satellites already in orbit, we know that Elon Musk has the funding to deliver his next generation of satellites at scale. Since the StarLink/T-Mobile announcement, shares have fallen at AST SpaceMobile, but with a large market of over 15 Billion mobiles phones in the world, there is likely to be enough business for all operators in this sector.

How will these new services affect Humanitarian Aid workers? Let me deal with the Apple/GlobalStar partnership first. As a Aid Worker, two way communications is essential so the iPhone 14 text back up service is not going to work for me as the service is limited to sending emergency text messages. Secondly, Apple technology is expensive and we normally use cheaper Android models from a range of manufacturers. Whilst there is definitely a market for the iPhone 14, due to its limited function, I doubt it will gain any form of support in the aid world. Secondly, coverage is poor in some parts of the global south.

I feel more positive about the solutions from StarLink and AST SpaceMobile. Both of these organisations plan to use the 4G and 5G spectrum as used by most standard mobile phones. For aid workers, this will make telecommunications more accessible through standard handsets. However, will this technology work?

Challenges: The traditional satellite operators use different parts of the radio spectrum to provide a service. International agreements enable the four main satellite networks to provide service into most countries. There are some countries where satellite phones are illegal.

Where these new services are permitted, some of us in the aid sector have some question we need to see answers to;

  1. How well with these new services perform when they become available?  How well will an standard handset cope with a satellite a few hundred KM away when its designed to communicate with a base station a few KM from the user?

  2. 4G and 5G spectrum will be crowded. So expect to see some regulatory challenges and perhaps some lawsuits between some of the terrestrial operators. The T-Mobile/Starlink model is probably the best way to success where service users have a contract with a local network provider and the satellite provider fills in the gaps with a roaming service.

I can see a problem with this. What happens when a user is away from his/her home country?  Does the mobile phone connect to the satellite or roam on another terrestrial network?

Conclusion: Whilst the Apple/GlobalStar is not the solution I will buy in to, AST SpaceMobile and StarLink are two interesting technologies to watch closely. These technologies have the potential to disrupt parts of the satellite communications market, especially on land. At sea, its less likely as traditional satellite operators such as Inmarsat and now Iridium form an essential part of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System as used by ships at sea.