Connectivity

The 5G space race could kick off this month

Companies from Apple to T-Mobile are pouring money into satellite cellular services.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

5G towers are still being rolled out across the planet, but that’s not stopping some companies from thinking about how to make next-gen connectivity work off the planet.

Satellite telecoms company Lynk Global, which has received $30 million in funding since its 2017 founding, plans to launch a 5G cellular base station into orbit no earlier than December 22 in what it claims is a first-of-its-kind test.

While terrestrial cell towers generally can only provide up to 25 miles of connectivity on average, Lynk’s tech would provide coverage from orbit, potentially filling in gaps where cell service is unavailable and eliminating any need for a separate satellite phone and subscription.

Lynk will use the test to assess the viability of beaming 5G signals from space to standard 5G devices, like phones. The company has initially focused on 2G and 4G connectivity with the satellite it has deployed so far, and plans to ramp up production for a 5,000 satellite constellation in anticipation of 5G by 2026, Charles Miller, co-founder and CEO of Lynk, told Emerging Tech Brew.

“Maybe four or five years from now, every phone will probably have 5G built into it, and we just want to be ready for that…We will be there when the mobile network operators say, ‘Hey, everybody’s got 5G, you’ll get better performance if you switch over to 5G,” Miller said. “We’re just staying ahead of the game.”

A growing…space

Lynk isn’t the only player making moves in the satellite direct-to-device market, which by some estimates could be “largest opportunity in satcom’s history,” according to one analyst at the satellite and space industry research firm Northern Sky Research.

NSR projects that satellite direct-to-device subscribers could grow from basically zero in 2022 to an eye-watering 378 million subs by 2030.

“Until a year ago, there were only two companies pursuing the dream—Lynk and AST SpaceMobile,” Chris Quilty, founder of space research firm Quilty Analytics told us in an emailed statement. “But we’ve recently had a flood of companies enter the fray, including SpaceX/T-Mobile and Apple/Globalstar.”

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SpaceX and T-Mobile announced a partnership in August to deliver satellite cellular service throughout the US, Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and territorial waters by letting customers send text messages. And Apple decided the tech was worth spending $450 million on—it’s partnering with satellite operator Globalstar to bring Emergency SOS via satellite to the iPhone 14.

So far, satellite direct-to-device functions are generally limited to text messages. But companies are pushing to expand these services to support more complex functions, like phone calls, email, and basic web browsing. And according to Chris Daehnick, senior solution leader and associate partner at McKinsey, there is a belief in the industry that the satellite direct-to-device technology is “ready,” and that costs can be brought low enough while increasing performance that the service could be useful.

“The direct-to-device idea is a bit of a next step,” Daehnick said. “Instead of having something which is dependent on a satellite dish type antenna, can you have something that you hold in your hand that connects you anywhere?”

Miller said Lynk currently has patents in 55 countries, and is testing its 2G and 4G satellite direct to phone services across 12 countries in total, including the Bahamas, Papua New Guinea, Mongolia, and Ghana; Lynk ultimately aims to partner with mobile network operators, which could offer connectivity through standard phone plans to consumers.

According to Miller, Lynk has already signed 19 commercial contracts with 19 different mobile network operators in “about 40 countries,” and is aiming to offer commercial service before the end of the year, but he declined to name any customers.

“I want to disintermediate the story that you read in the newspapers, someone was out in the middle of nowhere and disconnected and died because they had no connectivity to their phone. I want that to be something you never read again,” Miller said.

Editor's note: This piece was updated with a more up-to-date figure on Lynk's funding.

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