Qualcomm: The Age of Satellite-Enabled Smartphones Drawing Near with Space-Based Phones Set to Enter the Mass-Market

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By Victor Xu | 1Q 2023 | IN-6826

Direct satellite-to-mobile connectivity has been one of the most ambitious endeavors of the Satellite Communications (SatCom) industry for many years and that initiative has finally become a commercially exciting reality in recent times. Qualcomm and Iridium are the latest pair among a host of strong partnerships to hop on the direct satellite-to-mobile bandwagon. What are the current limitations of satellite-to-mobile connectivity? And what is the future ahead?

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Qualcomm and Iridium: The Next Pair Joining the Satellite Space Venture


At CES 2023 in early January 2023, Qualcomm and Iridium announced a strategic collaboration to bring satellite-based messaging to next-gen premium Android devices. Qualcomm’s new feature, the Snapdragon Satellite, connects Android phones directly to satellites for global coverage and is capable of supporting full two-way messaging communication and emergency SOS services. The Snapdragon Satellite will be on Qualcomm’s flagship System-on-Chip (SoC), the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor, and will connect to Iridium’s satellite network with the Snapdragon X70 modem. Iridium’s constellation of 66 satellites in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) operates in the L-band (1 – 2 GHz) spectrum, and as the satellites have polar orbits with inter-satellite links, the Snapdragon Satellite is billed as being capable of delivering truly global coverage from pole to pole. Besides Iridium, Garmin is also in the mix, as well as an operational partner for the emergency SOS service. For emergency situations, the Snapdragon Satellite will rely on the 24/7-staffed Garmin Response Team, Garmin’s emergency messaging infrastructure, and its proprietary mapping and response coordination software to determine the most appropriate emergency response agency to coordinate rescue solutions.

The Snapdragon Satellite is expected to be available in select markets in 2H 2023 on mobile devices based on Qualcomm’s flagship SoC, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor, and its X70 modem system.

Satellite Communication (SatCom): The Next Frontier for Consumer Smartphones


SatCom: Truly Global Connectivity for Smartphones

Imagine being able to use a mobile handset anywhere in the world—in the most far-flung corners of the world, mid-ocean, and in the polar regions outside the coverage footprint of terrestrial cellular networks. That ambitious dream now looks set to become a reality with major space players and technology and telecommunication companies kicking off a host of satellite-to-mobile projects. In its essence, the concept of universal mobile connectivity works with the support of LEO satellites providing connection to consumer mobile devices in “dead zones” unreachable by terrestrial cellular networks. Direct satellite-to-device connectivity works by incorporating satellite-capable hardware into consumer smartphones, as seen in the case of Apple, Huawei, and Qualcomm, or by designing and implementing cellular-capable hardware modules into satellites, which are the respective domains of SpaceX/Starlink, AST SpaceMobile and Lynk Global.

The Growing Satellite-to-Mobile Party

The satellite-to-mobile industry had a massive year in 2022 with a host of projects and technology partnerships, from companies like Apple, Globalstar, Huawei, BeiDou, SpaceX, T-Mobile, AT&T, Vodafone, Rakuten Mobile, AST SpaceMobile, and Lynk Global, among others, coming to the fore. The satellite-to-mobile bandwagon shows little sign of slowing down in 2023; besides the Qualcomm/Iridium partnership, Motorola also announced a partnership with Bullitt Satellite Connect in January 2023 for a satellite messaging service on the upcoming Motorola Mobility’s Defy phone lineup. The year 2023 does look like it will be shaping up for direct satellite-to-mobile to be the next mobile tech trend.

The Potential and Near-Term (Realistic) Outlook of Satellite-to-Mobile Connectivity


The Satellite-to-Mobile Market Opportunity

The race to provide satellite-to-mobile device connectivity is well underway and the market potential in connecting billions of smartphones is enormous. With the ballooning investment dollars in the high-growth space tech segment, strategic partnerships, and technological gains, the direct satellite-to-mobile market looks set to be a big opportunity for SatCom. Recent ABI Research data have estimated that the Non-Terrestrial Network (NTN) mobile service segment (which includes the satellite-to-cell segment) will reach 6.8 million subscribers by 2027 (see SatCom Constellations: Deployments & Subscriptions).

Satellite-Connected Phones: Not Doing Much, for Now

Making video calls right smack in the middle of the wilderness, WhatsApp-ing photos from the remotest places on Earth, listening to Apple Music/Spotify from far-flung offshore locations, and doing it all from the standard consumer smartphone are the promises of an exciting satellite-based future. But don’t expect it anytime soon (yet). At its current stage, satellite services focus on low data rate text messaging with the main goal of covering exceptional situations and emergencies. For one, the Apple/Globalstar and Qualcomm/Iridium satellite services operate in the L-band (1 –2 GHz) spectrum, and this has implications on system capacity and performance. Given the low bandwidth capability of the L-band, satellite messages are limited to 140 bytes or about 160 characters, making them more like Short Messaging Service (SMS) messages. With technological development gains in space tech, however, the future may well give us Ku (12 –18 GHz) or Ka (27 –40 GHz) band-capable connectivity as direct-satellite-to-mobile services migrate to higher frequencies to access more bandwidth for increased use cases.

Positive on the Future of the Satellite-to-Mobile Market

Exciting developments are on the horizon and satellite connectivity could well be the next grandiose technology in consumer mobile devices. Recent reports have reported that Google has also been proactive on the satellite-to-device front, and that the Android 14 will reportedly allow satellite support. With major consumer smartphone manufacturers, such as Apple, Google, and Huawei, in the works developing satellite-enabled smartphones, the age of satellite-enabled smartphones for everyday users does seems to be drawing near with space-based phones set to enter the mass market. Additionally, in separate news, recent patents filed by Apple have also suggested that its SatCom efforts could expand beyond its current form of mere Emergency SOS service text messaging to include voice communication calls, streaming video, Internet data, and more in future satellite services. To unlock those future satellite services, Apple will aim to connect with satellites via IEEE bands Ka, Ku, K, V, W, X, C, and ISO Q, among others.

Importantly, there are also growing expectations that satellite systems will play an essential role in developing 5G NTN and including satellites as part of The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), which will further drive the growth in the satellite-to-mobile marketspace.

ABI Research expects a positive roadmap and overall growth for the satellite-to-mobile market space, direct satellite-to-mobile services to continue to evolve into higher data rate connections, and applications of satellite-to-mobile connectivity to broaden as use cases proliferate.