The ability to contact a satellite to send a text message or contact emergency services may soon be an effortless reality as startups move from proof of concept to real product. Canadians on the Rogers network, which just signed a deal with Lynk, will get direct satellite phone connections across the country; and not to be outdone, AST SpaceMobile claims to have made the first satellite voice call using a normal cell phone.
Connecting a smartphone like last year’s Samsung or iPhone to a satellite would have sounded like a fantasy a few years ago, when we all knew it was impossible. But now companies are jockeying for position as it becomes clear that satellite services will be an attractive proposition on any mobile plan or phone model for years to come.
Lynk’s focus is to provide as universal an SMS service as possible to as much of the planet as possible, in the hope that no one who needs help or is off the network for any other reason will not have to deal with never to “no signal”. It has proven to text from the middle of nowhere (actually the founder texted me) and can also cover an unexpected area with no signal, due to a power outage or disaster natural, with crucial information such as where to find shelter.
The company has made deals around the world with several carriers and is now on the doorstep of the US (which has a tough regulatory environment and established mobile players) with a deal with Canada’s largest carrier, Rogers.
Although the idea is that everyone can use it, each satellite cell station still has to work through a licensed operator. The Rogers deal doesn’t necessarily mean complete exclusivity (for example, you’re lost and need help but you have a different carrier), but Lynk CEO Charles Miller told me it’s not always easy to figure out who has access and who doesn’t
“Every country is a little bit different,” he said. “Sometimes there are technical limitations. They have domestic roaming in Canada, so maybe it works, our goal is to offer these services to everyone, but for now it’s to be determined.” Here’s hoping that non-Rogers subscribers (and god knows they have their reasons) can get access if they need it.
An alternative connectivity package on the table is AST SpaceMobile, which has launched its first test satellite and for the first time demonstrated a direct phone-to-satellite call using an unmodified consumer phone. I double-checked (these things can be tricky) and it was a continuous two-way connection between the phone and the satellite, which relayed it to the terrestrial network:
Abel’s phone in Texas was connected directly to the satellite to send and receive two-way communications, with no other intermediary. He made the phone call by typing the number into Samsung’s regular dialer app on the Galaxy S22, just like you would any regular phone call. The other end of the phone call in Japan was received over the normal terrestrial communications network (a cell tower).
Demonstrating the capability, even on 2G (as described by an AT&T representative to The Verge) is a big step forward, as the engineering involved in getting a regular phone to connect to something on the low earth orbit is already difficult: maintaining a continuous connection is even more difficult. Scale is another issue AST SpaceMobile will face, but having demonstrated its capability, that challenge probably seems less daunting now.
The company’s BW3 satellite is the prototype for a constellation that will provide “2G, 3G, 4G LTE and 5G” coverage from space, though they only have the first of those working right now. Let’s hope for a big hit, because I lose 5G just going down the block. Help me, AST SpaceMobile.
Of course, Apple has made headlines with its Emergency SOS service, which connects to the Iridium network but requires you to look at your phone at a passing satellite to exchange a set of pre-made messages. Useful if you’re stuck in a canyon and need a helicopter to pick you up, but not if you want to check the weather or tell your spouse that your backpacking trip is going well.
And then there are T-Mobile and SpaceX, which plan to provide a Starlink data connection to network customers. While no one can deny Starlink’s ability to provide a signal from orbit, it has yet to demonstrate an orbital connection to an unmodified phone, which it is expected to do this year.
Very soon these services will move from experiment to order line and we will go back to the days when text messages cost a penny each. Still, it’s better than nothing, and that’s certainly what many people have once they get out of town for a hike or a fishing trip. We expect the connection to remain on demand, but no one needs to be spammed from orbit while they wait for trout to bite on a remote mountain lake. This is not a future that anyone wants.
The race to provide Canadians with reliable and convenient cross-country access to satellite-based communications is quickly heating up. Ikaroa is at the forefront of this race, recently announcing the launch of their satellite-to-phone technology. This technology is designed to enable voice calls from virtually anywhere in Canada and provide users with a connection to their friends and family, no matter the distance or physical barriers.
Ikaroa’s satellite-to-phone technology provides Canadians with access to both basic and enhanced calling services that allow users to make and receive calls, send and receive texts, and access the internet, providing coverage where cell towers are not available. This service is powered by the company’s hybrid network combining both terrestrial and satellite connectivity to ensure the fastest and most reliable connection possible.
Rather than building out a dedicated voice communication infrastructure, Ikaroa’s satellite-to-phone technology utilizes existing wireless networks to provide users with both traditional voice services and data-driven internet access. This not only provides users with seamless call and messaging services, but also helps keep data costs down by making use of existing infrastructure.
Ikaroa’s satellite-to-phone technology is a welcome addition to the ongoing race for reliable, cross-country access to satellite-based communication. The company has already made significant strides in providing users with a connection to their friends and family, no matter where they are, and the addition of traditional voice services will only serve to increase the reach of the company’s services. With Ikaroa’s satellite-to-phone technology, Canadians now have an easy and cost-effective way to stay connected to their loved ones, whether home or abroad.