In the near term, ABI Research foresees that emergency communication services would be a “proto” use case for wider, hybrid 5G cellular/satellite handset applications. Apple will be a leading proponent in this service with its iPhone 14 lineup. In time, with the T-Mobile and Starlink collaboration and Huawei/BeiDou service, there could be the possibility of new lines of commercial use cases. Certainly, more can be done to provide reliable service ubiquity use cases for the unserved and underserved areas.
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Non-Terrestrial Network Connectivity for Consumer Smartphones
Non-Terrestrial Network (NTN) is an umbrella term for any network that involves non-terrestrial communication platforms. The NTN family includes Satellite Communication (satcom) networks, High Altitude Platform Stations (HAPSs), and air-to-ground networks. There have been a number of developments in the satellite-based communication sector in recent days. In September 2022, both Apple and Huawei announced satellite connectivity to their new lineup of smartphones, the iPhone 14 and the Mate 50 series, respectively. In the month prior, T-Mobile and Starlink announced “Coverage Above and Beyond,” a partnership service with the goal of providing cellular connectivity to just about every nook and cranny in the United States. The satellite-powered service aims to provide most T-Mobile subscribers with near complete cell coverage by leveraging the Starlink constellation of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites.
Satellite Communications and NTN
The History of Satellite Telecommunications: Satphones
Over the past 20 or so years, satellite telecommunication has been done with the use of “satphones,” a specially designed portable terminal that connects to the telco network by satellite Radio Frequency (RF) links. There are three types of satellite phone systems: 1) systems that use satellites in High Geostationary Orbit (GEO), ~35,800 Kilometers (km) (22,200 miles) above the Earth’s surface; 2) systems that use satellites in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), an altitude anywhere between the LEO and GEO orbits between 2,000 and 35,800 km (1,200 and 22,200 miles); and 3) systems that use satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), 640 to 1,120 km (400 to 700 miles) above the Earth. Satphone handsets have been very costly, but they have now come down to around US$1,000. Iridium, Globalstar, Thuraya, and Inmarsat were some of the early pioneers in the satphone market.
Satellite Connectivity for Consumer Smartphones: The Dawn of a New Era
One of the principal applications of satellite-based communication is to support critical communications and to support enterprise communications. On September 7, a new segment emerged. Apple introduced its “Emergency SOS via Satellite” service with the purpose of connecting to emergency services anywhere in the world via satellite connection. Globalstar, an American Satellite Communication (satcom) company will be the satellite provider for Apple’s Emergency SOS service. For this service, the iPhone 14 antennas have been engineered for satellite connectivity and through an embedded function, so iPhone users can connect to Globalstar’s network of LEO satellites to send and receive text messages from the Messages app to emergency services when one is out of coverage range. In the same week, Huawei also unveiled satcom capabilities in its latest Mate 50 series of smartphones. The Huawei handset is able to uplink messages to China’s BeiDou global satellite navigation system, which would enable users to send messages and their location data via BeiDou in the absence of coverage service. At present, it is unclear if the BeiDou system supports a return message path.
Satellite Connectivity for Mobile Carriers: T-Mobile and SpaceX
SpaceX and T-Mobile have also teamed up for a project called Coverage Above and Beyond. SpaceX’s Starlink LEO satellites will be beaming service straight to phones on T-Mobile’s mid-band spectrum (~2,500 Megahertz (MHz) band). This service is expected to launch by the end of 2023 and will initially only work with messaging apps, though there are plans to add voice and data support in the future. Unlike both Apple’s and Huawei’s satellite programs, which would require specific hardware like the iPhone 14 and Mate 50 to work, T-Mobile’s customers would be able to access Starlink connectivity with their current 5G smartphone hardware via T-Mobile’s existing spectrum.
5G and NTNs: Putting 5G into Space
Recent advancements in 5G standards have provided the opportunity to integrate 5G networks and NTNs, making satcom with 5G consumer smartphone hardware possible. In a typical connection scenario, the 5G Core (5GC) network connects to a 5G base station (gNB) using the NG interface. The gNB is located on the ground and connects to an NTN gateway that connects via the feeder link to the NTN orbital payload (a network node on a satellite or High-Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) (typically an aircraft or balloon). Constellations of LEO satellites are key enablers for “mobile terminal-based” connections. The NTN payload connects to the user equipment (5G consumer smartphone) via the service link using the Uu interface.
The Future of Satcom and 5G NTNs
For the foreseeable future, satellite connectivity through smartphones could only be done through the smartphone makers’ partnerships with satellite companies, such as Apple’s partnership with Globalstar and Huawei teaming up with BeiDou. The satellite connectivity use cases for both Apple and Huawei are limited, however, and serve mainly to only send emergency messages. More robust and extensive satcom still relies on dedicated satphone devices and ground terminal equipment in which companies like Globalstar, Hughes Network Systems, Iridium and Viasat specialize in. The Emergency SOS via Satellite service by Apple will eventually become a paid add-on for iPhone users, though iPhone 14 owners will receive 2 free years to start. There could possibly be a commercial use case for paid satcom services with the target group being people who frequent areas with poor or unreliable cellular coverage, such as oil & gas workers, maritime crews, intrepid travelers, journalists who often find themselves in remote regions, etc. The upcoming T-Mobile and Starlink project could further increase a wider range of applications with service being beamed to T-Mobile subscribers.
The 5G NTN mobile market is likely to pick up steam with notable names, such as China Mobile, Ericsson, MediaTek, Qualcomm, Thales, and ZTE, joining the 5G NTN ecosystem. 5G NTN has the potential to deliver fast and reliable 5G connectivity everywhere via satellite, thus making fast and reliable 5G connectivity accessible in unserved and underserved areas. But the cost of service will need to come down substantially as the cost for data transmission via satellite is considerably higher compared to terrestrial cellular.