Cell phone + satellite, open a new imagination. “After three seconds, it’s tasteless.” In the early morning of Beijing time on the 8th, the annual Apple fall new product launch, AKA “Technology Spring Gala” opened on time. What no one expected was that the biggest highlight of the launch was the “pill screen” of the two “Pro” versions of iPhone 14 – The “Dynamic Island” UI innovation saved the whole event.
In fact, besides spitting on the iPhone 14 as the “Thirteen S”, the new iPhone adds a feature that could have a huge impact on the future of communications.
In iPhone 14, a satellite communication feature has been added, allowing users in applicable areas to send signals and text messages via satellite when using Emergency SOS. This feature has been rumored before the announcement of the previous generation of iPhones, and now it is finally sitting in the real world.
Last night, in addition to fruit fans, probably the most concerned about the launch was Globalstar’s stockholders. The company has previously been rumored to be working with Apple on satellite communication features. Like last year, the company’s shares shot to a high before Apple’s launch. This year, Globalstar shares rose as high as 42% before the event!
And just two days before Apple’s launch, Huawei Mate’s new product launch has been early “cut off”, will “stab the sky” satellite connected phone function exposure.
Why do Apple, Huawei, Google, and even Geely such car companies, unanimously to “satellite direct connection” function to the phone? And what kind of changes will this bring?
Emergency SOS function ｜Image source: Apple launch
01 “Skynet” when it is ripe
Why is it now that cell phone manufacturers are rushing to “satellite”?
From the history of satellite communications, cell phones can be directly connected to satellites, but also in recent years after the increase of low-orbit satellites (LEO: Low Earth Orbit) appeared. On the other hand, the terminal modules of satellite communication, such as miniature antennas and chips, have also matured, and it is only necessary for cell phone manufacturers to make them smaller and integrate them into the cell phone.
High orbit satellites are located in geostationary orbit, more than 30,000 km from the earth’s surface. Low orbit satellites, on the other hand, are located within a distance of 2,000 kilometers. High-orbiting satellites can cover a larger area, while low-orbiting satellites have shorter transmission delays and lower path loss, making them more conducive to communication.
Starlink is a typical low-orbit satellite, and it is constantly adjusting its orbital altitude from more than 1000 km to more than 500 km. Low-orbiting satellites cover a smaller area, so a larger number of satellites need to be launched to form a communication network. This also explains why the launch of low-orbit satellites and the formation of a “satellite Internet” has been an important part of the strategic layout of satellite companies.
As the representative of the “low-orbit satellite constellation”, when SpaceX’s Starlink announced its cooperation with T-Moblie at the end of August, it was believed that the announcement was made at this point in time to compete with Apple’s upcoming new features.
Unlike Apple, which updates software and components on cell phones, T-Mobile and SpaceX are taking the approach of making the satellite “compatible” with cell phones.
Musk revealed that the second-generation Starlink will have a large antenna with a diameter of 5 to 6 meters, which will be able to transmit on the frequency bands that cell phones can receive. The information will be sent through the PCS band, which T-Mobile has the right to use.
Of course, this service also provides mainly text transmission with limited bandwidth. In the area covered, the bandwidth of the message is 2 to 4 Mbit/s signal in each area. It is difficult enough to swipe the video screen, but it can support users in the United States to send text messages and make phone calls in places where the network was previously disconnected.
Image source: Huawei
On the other hand, Huawei’s “direct satellite connection” is provided by the Beidou satellite system.
The BeiDou system is mainly composed of satellites in medium and high orbits, with the largest proportion of satellites being Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites between low and high orbits. These satellites have an orbital altitude of about 21,500km.
In addition to the well-known GPS positioning and dedicated satellite communication services, this system can also support Huawei’s “short message communication”, which has a bandwidth of 40 Chinese characters in a single transmission. Globalstar’s T-mobile’s satellite network can support both receiving and sending.
02 Mobile + Satellite = Change the Future?
Globalstar, now in the spotlight again because of Apple, is the last generation of satellite Internet, contemporary with the Iridium satellite constellation. In the last round of development, it was neither “salvaged” by the U.S. Department of Defense after its bankruptcy like the Iridium program, nor did other satellite operators gain a firm foothold in the broader communications sector.
Partnering with Apple also means it has found its next big customer.
According to the company’s latest announcement, Globalstar is offering 85 percent of its satellite network capacity to Apple, and Globalstar expects revenue in 2023 to be between $185 million and $230 million, depending in part on how well the company meets its goals related to its deal with Apple. Apple currently provides $450 million to support its infrastructure.
Communication satellite｜Photo credit: Globalstar
Iridium Internet, born in the glory days of Motorola, started in 1987 and became operational in 1998. However, due to the high cost and low usage of satellite phones, it was soon reorganized in bankruptcy in 2000. The company then restructured its business to provide communication services mainly for the U.S. military, as well as for maritime, scientific research and other applications.
At about the same time, Globalstar went through bankruptcy and reorganization in 2002, and was conceived in 1991 with Qualcomm’s participation. The entire Globalstar system was designed as a satellite system using low-orbiting satellites to provide global coverage and support communications.
Globalstar received its U.S. spectrum allocation from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1995. It has since been granted licenses in a range of other national jurisdictions as well. Its communication systems use the frequency band between 1.6 GHz and 2.4 GHz.
In addition to traditional rescue and exploration, it remains unclear where the next growth point in applications will be for communication satellites. When the giants have started to make applications down the field, communication satellite companies have also gotten excited. The founder of a U.S. satellite company said on Twitter that Musk and T-Mobile have put the world on notice of the huge market opportunity for cellular-space communications.
It’s worth noting that while the “direct cellular satellite” offered by Apple and T-Mobile is not very different in terms of functionality, the current model is different. The former is a new feature embedded in the phone, while the latter is a new service provided by the carrier. Apple’s partnership with Globalstar is a new module integrated into the phone that uses services from an established network.
SpaceX’s partnership with T-Mobile, on the other hand, means designing and launching satellites to adapt to the network bands already available on the market for cell phones. The founder of Thousand Domains SpaceX Consulting Co., Ltd. Blue Sky Wing said, at present in the early stage of the popularity of this feature, the advantages and disadvantages of the two models, how the business model is unfolding, remains to be seen.
In the communication band, SpaceX also began a head-to-head battle. The latest news shows that SpaceX has submitted an application to the FCC on September 6 for the 1.6 to 2.4GHZ communication band. The band overlaps with Globalstar’s existing band.
What impact might a direct satellite connection to a cell phone have? If you just look at the current functionality, it doesn’t offer much imagination. After all, the emergency rescue scenario is too episodic and low-frequency.
However, in Blue Sky Wing’s view, this is indeed a new opportunity for the field of communication satellites: the last opportunity for the C-terminal market explosion in the satellite industry was the entry of GPS navigation into cell phones, which brought down the cost of GPS positioning and popularized and enriched application scenarios.
At present, the shortcoming of satellite communication services is the high cost. This in turn is related to its slow industrial cycle and insufficient competition. Compared with the fierce competition of terrestrial communication, “the satellite industry is relatively conservative, and it is a system that has been growing in a greenhouse-like environment.”
Starlink satellite｜Image source: Starlink
If we look at a longer scale, satellite communication will not replace the ground-based communication base stations either. The two will be superimposed and complimentary. For example, the cost of establishing base stations in remote areas and high altitudes is too high and the frequency of use is low, so the solution of satellite communication is more advantageous. At present, a part of some aircraft flights began to provide Wi-Fi, which is partly provided by ground base stations, and partly provided by satellite communications.
If the time comes when communication from satellites is truly developed, a cell phone user’s experience will be a more continuous and ubiquitous Internet. “A seamless, switching in multiple scenarios is available in the network, but this network has fast and slow.”
For the average user, the signal of the new iPhone may still be inferior to some Android machines; but the good news is that if you are really in a particularly poor signal but in an emergency situation, your probability of survival, may be improved a bit.