Soon your cell phone will be a satellite phone
When you spend billions of dollars to send tens of thousands of internet-connected computers into space, what do you do with them? For SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon, and others building giant satellite constellations in low Earth orbit, one is to provide broadband services directly to consumers. That's the approach being taken by SpaceX's Starlink, which has launched a beta service to hundreds of thousands of users, selling them its own ground terminals.
The advantage of this is that there are no middlemen and the company has complete control of the system. But the downside is that the terminals are expensive to design and produce, and they expose users to the tricky parts of satellite communications, like making sure your antenna can see the clear sky rather than a tree or nearby building.
Another option for dealing with all these customers is to plug satellites directly into existing ground communications networks. If satellites could connect directly to mobile phone networks, or mobile phones themselves, they wouldn't have to worry about expensive ground infrastructure or customer service. Extra capacity may be needed: Network firm Ericsson predicts that by 2026, American smartphone users will consume 48 gigabytes of data a month, up from 11 gigabytes last year.
If the partnership between the two companies works, it could be crucial for Kuiper and OneWeb. Kuiper will start operating several years after Starlink, while OneWeb is expected to start offering services by the end of 2021 and has a similar partnership with AT&T. If early adopters opt for these other services, a partnership with Verizon could generate immediate revenue, even if it may not be as lucrative as a direct relationship.
What about connecting modern mobile phones directly to satellite networks? The distances involved mean that phones connected to traditional satellite networks, such as those from Iridium, are bigger and more expensive than phones, and they come with more expensive data plans. They make sense for people in extreme situations, but it's not an obvious consumer market.
There are many ways to make mobile phones work with space networks. Still, some space companies are betting on direct access to the iPhone. AST Space Mobility, a company that went public this year, hopes to solve the connectivity challenge with a giant space antenna -- something that can be done, but the size of the spacecraft has NASA worried and the company has yet to get an operating license. If they get regulatory approval, the company hopes to work with Vodafone and other mobile companies to provide connections beyond the range of cell towers.
Kymeta, a maker of satellite ground systems, said this week that it has demonstrated the technology to create local LTE networks using satellite-connected terminals to provide connectivity to mobile users who cannot connect to base stations. Neville Majors, chief strategy officer at Kymeta, told Quartz: "Strong communities working in satellite environments...basically pushing satellites as an alternative network for connectivity."
With the need for connectivity showing no signs of abating, satellite operators are gearing up to provide the capacity needed for users on Earth. But those users may not even know that their phone calls, texts, and social media posts are being transmitted through space.