The major space players and diverging strategies in the race to connect your smartphone via satellites

by | Oct 23, 2022 | Business

Sofia Pitt, CNBCThe race to provide high-speed internet from satellites is well underway – but another, more ambitious competition, to connect directly from space to devices like smartphones, began in earnest earlier this year.The potential untapped market — which hinges on, but extends beyond, sending a text via space — is spurring a tale of two strategies: Those putting specialized antennae in phones, versus those putting high-powered antennae on the satellites themselves. For some companies, it means billions spent on what could end up being a losing approach. “The satellite industry is really niche and – if they can tap into connecting billions of smartphones – they can start talking about market sizes that are way greater than they’ve ever been able to address before. Everything before has been in the millions,” Caleb Henry, senior analyst at boutique research firm Quilty Analytics, told CNBC.Sign up here to receive weekly editions of CNBC’s Investing in Space newsletter.A host of projects and partners – from Apple, Iridium, SpaceX, T-Mobile and AT&T, among others – have come to the fore in 2022, at various stages of development to connect directly to smartphones. It’s long been a dream of satellite communications visionaries, but bulky, specialized and typically expensive satellite phones fell short of mass appeal.Now, an evolution of technology is revamping the race to perfect space-based communications, according to Patricia Cooper, founder of Constellation Advisory and former SpaceX vice president for satellite government affairs. “One of the differences [from earlier generations] is the capability of today’s satellites in low Earth orbit, which means that they might be able to deliver more than just a thin kind of text, or almost like a pager, service,” Cooper said.Diverging techSpaceX this summer announced a partnership that would allow T-Mobile users to send messages from places unreachable by terrestrial cell towers, utilizing SpaceX’s second generation of Starlink satellites. CEO Elon Musk said the larger, upgraded Starlink satellites would feature wide antennae that could transmit directly to a mobile device, with T-Mobile hoping to eventually add voice calling through the satellites. While SpaceX has launched more than 3,000 first generation satellites so far, adding a direct-to-phone service will require thousands more.The partnership is similar to those made by AST SpaceMobile. The company last month put its second test satellite in orbit and has deals with mobile telecoms, including AT&T, Vodafone and Rakuten. The satellite company went public via a SPAC last year and has raised nearly $600 million to date. AST’s network would consist of fewer satellites than the Starlink constellation, but still calls for nearly 250 to be deployed for global coverage.Private venture Lynk Global likewise aims to provide a cell tower in space from satellites, with plans for a constellation of several thousand in a few years. Lynk has raised around $25 million since its founding in 2017. It’s flown five test satellites to orbit so far. The company announced it sent “the world’s first text message from a satellite in orbit to a standard mobile phone on the ground” in early 2020.And while some build out satellite networks, other major players are eyeing Earth-bound innovations, with syste …

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