Apple intends to conquer one of the last frontiers of smartphones

Eric Dowek, chief marketing officer of chip design firm AccelerComm, says, “People have tried this before. Iridium’s bankruptcy is proving more difficult than most people anticipate. The satellites are much further away and the channel quality is worse than what you would get on a terrestrial network.”

Historically, running regular phones on satellite networks has been too difficult. Cell phones using the 3G or 4G spectrum were not tuned to signals broadcast by communications satellites orbiting hundreds of thousands of miles above the earth.

Now, however, those connections are close to reality. Modern 5G phones are able to connect to higher spectrum frequencies previously reserved for satellite communications. Starlink’s service will use “mid-band” terrestrial spectrum provided by T-Mobile that even 4G mobile phones can connect to.

But even so, this service will only be able to offer connections of two to four megabits per second. “The initial service will be for sending and receiving text messages,” a T-Mobile spokesperson said, though Musk promised calls and video soon after.

On Thursday, Google also confirmed that it was “designing for satellites” in its next version of its Android smartphone software.

If Apple announces satellite communications on Wednesday, its service will also be extremely limited.

Ben Wood, analyst at CCS Insight, said: “It is inconceivable that Apple has a fully functional satellite phone. What they might do is turn the phone or watch into a ‘beacon’. »

The iPhone or Apple Watch could be configured to send a distress signal, which would be just a small packet of data, to a satellite in the event of an emergency.

Garmin smartwatches are already capable of sending out a distress beacon that pings the Iridium satellite network from anywhere in the world. Sending much larger amounts of data will drain battery life.

Dowek, of Southampton-based Accelercomm, says new chip technologies could boost the signals phones receive from satellites. Accelercomm is developing a new type of chip architecture that could double the “spectrum efficiency” of 5G signals.

AST Space Mobile, a new Starlink rival, is perhaps even more ambitious than Musk or Apple. He says his service will connect directly to 4G and 5G networks at speeds comparable to regular mobile broadband, but at an upfront cost of just $510 million compared to the billions it cost to set up the Starlink network. .

Its initial network will cover the equatorial nations and aims to provide mobile subscriptions to 700 million unconnected people. AST’s large Bluebird satellites, which orbit at 700 km, will have 64 square meters of antenna and weigh 1,500 kg.

Still, big challenges remain, says Peter Hadinger, chief technology officer at Inmarsat.

“New entrants are looking to use existing smartphones, which solves the consumer adoption problem, but presents significant technical and regulatory hurdles. »

SpaceX does not have clearance from the US Federal Communications Commission to launch its second-generation Starlink satellites, a network of 30,000, which requires billions of dollars in investment.

These heavier satellites, which weigh 1.2kg each and are seven meters long, also require SpaceX to launch its long-awaited superheavy Starship rocket into orbit. AST Space Mobile’s own launches have also been repeatedly delayed.

“Companies like Inmarsat, Iridium and Globalstar have a technical and regulatory solution,” Hadinger says, but their satellite phones haven’t been widely adopted.

Apple’s project is still shrouded in mystery, but it would face its own obstacles. Although its hardware has been tested for satellite connections, delays are still possible until “Apple and carriers can establish the business model,” according to a report from Apple supply chain analysts. at TF Securities.

If anyone can make it work, it’s the iPhone giant. Two decades after the first attempts at Iridium, Apple has every intention of conquering one of the last frontiers of smartphones.

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