There is no question that satellite-enabled smartphones have become a major trend recently. Just in the past year, the likes of Apple, Amazon, AST-SpaceMobile, AT&T, Bullitt Group, GlobalStar, Huawei, Lynk Global, SpaceX, T-Mobile and Verizon have talked about or launched satellite-based smartphone services. My colleague Will Townsend and I have been covering all the latest developments on our 5G podcast, the G2 on 5G.
Even with all the announcements and product launches of 2022, some companies were curiously missing from the conversation, namely Qualcomm, Iridium and Garmin. These three firms have some of the longest pedigrees in the satellite space—easily longer than most of the companies mentioned above. That all changed this month at CES 2023, when the three companies announced a two-way messaging service called Snapdragon Satellite.
Qualcomm, Iridium, and Garmin’s heritage
Qualcomm’s heritage in satellites goes back to 1988 with the company’s founding and the creation of its Omnitracs technology, which was used for trucking logistics. The success of Omnitracs laid the groundwork for Qualcomm’s creation of CDMA technology, which helped the company grow into a leader in innovative mobile technologies. The company has been doing satellite R&D for 35-plus years and even helped to fund and build the satellite network provider GlobalStar through a joint venture with Loral Corporation. Qualcomm’s modems were also pivotal in enabling GlobalStar’s network to be compatible with Apple’s emergency satellite service because Qualcomm pre-certified its modem (embedded inside the iPhone) with GlobalStar’s spectrum and network.
Iridium is one of the world’s leading providers of satellite communications, with a global network of low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites going as far back as 1987. Iridium launched its second generation of satellites, the Iridium NEXT network, between 2017 and 2019. This 66-satellite network provides the connectivity and spectrum to enable the two-way messaging service that Snapdragon Satellite depends upon. Iridium also has a long history of supporting mobile satellite applications with handsets, pagers, and IoT devices, all of which depend on the Iridium satellite network. Iridium’s decades of experience in running and maintaining a satellite network with mission-critical applications is why it is considered one of the leaders in Satcom (satellite communications).
Garmin, like Qualcomm and Iridium, was also founded in the late 1980s, but has mostly stuck to providing end-user equipment and services. Since Garmin was founded in 1989, it has manufactured all kinds of consumer and commercial GPS devices which utilize satellite connectivity. One of the ways that has prepared Garmin for working with Qualcomm on Snapdragon Satellite has been with its inReach two-way messaging service and devices. I believe that Garmin’s experience with its inReach devices and services enables it to be a partner with Qualcomm for Snapdragon Satellite and utilize Garmin Response, its 24/7 staffed emergency response service already a part of inReach.
Snapdragon Satellite is a service Qualcomm has built using a combination of devices using the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 mobile platform and its Snapdragon X70 modem. This service, powered by Iridium’s second-generation satellite network, is not intended to be sold directly to consumers, but instead offered to OEMs as a differentiator for the added safety that it brings. Speaking of safety, since Snapdragon Satellite offers global coverage, it will also operate an emergency service that will leverage Garmin’s emergency messaging infrastructure to assist users who are in danger.
Currently, Qualcomm and its partners are in the phase of deciding exactly how the service will work for consumers, specifically whether the messaging capability will exist solely within the device’s SMS messaging app or whether it will be integrated as part of third-party OTT apps like WhatsApp, Telegram or Signal. We are still very much in the early days of these satellite messaging services, especially when you consider how limited the satellite networks are and the bandwidth caps they impose, which at this moment effectively mean that we are able to send only 144-character messages—like an SMS message—regardless of the application.
With new capabilities being built into 5G modems, we could see satellite communications become more seamlessly integrated into the smartphone user experience. However, it is essential to remember that no one in the industry expects satellite communications to ever compete with traditional cellular networks, at least not on earth.
Qualcomm expects its current OEM partners to bring devices with Snapdragon Satellite to market in the second half of this year, meaning that while the service is technically already operational, it is not yet on any commercial devices. Although smartphones running Snapdragon Satellite will not require external antennas, they will require some extra hardware in the RF front end to support Iridium’s L-Band frequency and lock on to the satellite signal. This also means that current Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 devices won’t be compatible with Snapdragon Satellite.
As mentioned, other companies are already working in the space with various solutions, capabilities, prices and timelines. As far as mobile commercial services go, Apple’s emergency-only solution powered by Qualcomm’s modems and GlobalStar’s network has been operating since November 2022 on the iPhone 14. Huawei announced in September that its Mate 50 will support messaging services over BeiDou’s satellite network, and later teased that the Mate Xs 2 would also have this capability. It remains unclear whether this service is commercially available today or what it will cost consumers, as Huawei has provided very few updates since September.
There is also still no concrete date for when the Motorola Defy, powered by Bullitt Satellite, will be operational, but we know that it will cost $4.99 a month and run on the Skylo service, which uses Immarsat and other satellite networks. Bullitt says that MediaTek’s TBA modems will power this new Motorola Defy satellite device using Bullitt’s Satellite service, which are slated to ship together in Q1 2023. SOS assistance will be free for the first year, similar to what Apple offers today, except that Apple’s service is free for two years and does not offer additional two-way messaging capabilities.
T-Mobile’s service powered by SpaceX is dependent on SpaceX’s second-generation Starlink satellites, which first launched only on December 28, 2022. SpaceX will take some time to reach global coverage with these satellites, but the company believes it will have global coverage by the end of 2024. T-Mobile and SpaceX are also using some of T-Mobile’s 1900 MHz PCS spectrum for this deployment. The expectation is that other operators worldwide will collaborate with the two companies in spectrum-sharing agreements to allow for global services. If all goes according to plan, this network will likely have the greatest bandwidth capability of any satellite service, but it will still pale in comparison to existing cell networks and will start out mainly as a text messaging service.
There are other competitors like Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which Verizon has publicly said it will use for rural backhaul and to serve rural users. AT&T has signed an agreement with AST-SpaceMobile and has already begun testing the integration of AST’s satellite network with its own terrestrial network under a conditional license from the FCC. In addition to AST-SpaceMobile, Lynk is the first company to be granted a commercial license by the FCC to operate a satellite service with smartphones for connectivity as opposed to the many provisional licenses others are operating under. Lynk has already signed an agreement with a communications solutions provider in Belgium named BICS, which powers much of the cellular roaming worldwide and was initially founded as Belgacom’s international carrier services division.
While you might not necessarily consider Garmin’s inReach service a competitor, it is a commercially ready two-way mobile messaging service. The admittedly major distinction here is that it requires a Garmin device and a separate service, which are friction points that many of the companies mentioned above are trying to eliminate. That said, I believe that Garmin’s inReach will be seen as the bar by which other services are evaluated and could offer a good metric to set our expectations.
Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Satellite service adds yet another competitor to the market for smartphone satellite connectivity. Many of the biggest operators in the U.S. already have existing partnerships in place, so it will be exciting to see how all of them compete with one another. I expect we will see some of these partnerships fade in the next few years as some OEMs or operators fail to reap enough value or return on investment. It would be good to see the FCC and Congress take a more active role in enabling these solutions and encouraging them to push the safety component as a public good.
That said, I do believe that many of these two-way messaging services may not be that popular with the majority of the population, because most people live in places with adequate cellular coverage. I believe that the ability to stay constantly connected with friends and family is valuable, and we will eventually find out how much people are willing to pay for these capabilities. Everyone acknowledges that there must be a slight additional cost for enabling this capability in smartphones—but how much will consumers regard as reasonable?
We are still very much in the early stages of this new era of satellite connectivity for smartphones. With standards bodies like the 3GPP building Release 17 to include satellite connectivity in the 5G standard, we could see satellite become a deeply integrated component into every smartphone with an optional line item on your cellular bill, or even as part of an OTT app that integrates emergency services and two-way messaging with satellite connectivity for a single monthly price.
Lots of these solutions have yet to ship and there’s still lots to figure out for consumers, OEMs and operators alike. I think that we will probably see lots of change in this space over the next few years until the market starts to shake out and stabilize into something simple and frictionless—like our current cellular networks.