Qualcomm and Iridium's satellite link-up loses signal

Tech was proven, but nobody wanted to put it in their Snapdragon devices

Updated Moves toward enabling satellite connectivity for smartphones have taken a knock with the cancellation of an agreement between chipmaker Qualcomm and satellite operator Iridium.

The deal between Qualcomm and Iridium, disclosed at the CES trade show in January, was to enable satellite messaging and emergency services in Android smartphones powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon chipset using Iridium's satellite network.

According to Iridium, the companies developed and demonstrated the technology, but it appears that smartphone makers have not implemented the feature in their Snapdragon-based devices. Iridium said Qualcomm therefore notified it on November 3 of the decision to terminate things, effective December 3.

Qualcomm told The Register: "Smartphone OEMs have indicated a preference towards standards-based solutions for satellite connectivity in mobile devices. We expect to continue to collaborate with Iridium on standards-based solutions while discontinuing efforts on the proprietary solution that was introduced earlier this year (2023).

"Qualcomm continues to support NB-NTN solutions for satellite connectivity powered by Qualcomm 212S and Qualcomm 9205S modem products."

Iridium noted that following the termination it will be free to engage with other companies in the smartphone sector that might be interested in the capability, and said it will be pursuing new relationships with device OEMs, chipmakers, and developers.

The company claimed it can offer "long-term service certainty" and that trade partners will be involved in Iridium's Narrowband Non-Terrestrial-Network service development planning, announced at the Company's Investor Day in September 2023.

Snapdragon Satellite had been intended to provide global connectivity for handsets based on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset, which had built-in support for the Iridium satellite network's L-band spectrum.

Other companies are offering or plan to offer satellite connectivity for smartphones, notably Apple, which introduced an Emergency SOS feature in the iPhone 14 that can use a satellite for emergency calls if no cellular service is available, as Iridium CEO Matt Desch acknowledged.

"Led by Apple today, mobile networks and device manufacturers still plan, over time, to provide their customers with expanded coverage and new satellite-based features, and our global coverage and regulatory certainty make us well suited to be a key player in this emerging market," he said.

"While I'm disappointed that this partnership didn't bear immediate fruit, we believe the direction of the industry is clear toward increased satellite connectivity in consumer devices."

Paolo Pescatore, tech and telco analyst at PP Foresight, commented: "There's no dressing this up as it represents a huge setback for the Android community. Rivals as well as other new entrants will now look to pick up the pieces. It does represent an opportunity for Iridium to work directly with OEM providers and others in the value chain."

SpaceX's Starlink satellite operation has advertised a Direct to Cell satellite phone service due to start next year, for example, which it claims will work with existing phone handsets. It plans to sell a text messaging service starting in 2024, with voice and data capabilities to be added in 2025.

Vodafone claimed in September to have made the world's first space-based 5G call with an unmodified handset, via a test satellite operated by AST SpaceMobile. The BlueWalker 3 satellite is specifically designed to provide 4G and 5G connectivity, allowing for data services and internet (IP) voice calls.

AST SpaceMobile is plotting to launch five commercial BlueBird satellites in the first quarter of 2024, and Vodafone intends to offer commercial services using these in future at an as yet unspecified time.

Qualcomm also announced last year that it was working with Ericsson and Thales on technology that could deliver a 5G telecommunications service from low Earth orbit satellites.

It was understood that this would require future handsets compatible with Release 17 of the 3GPP 5G specifications that include support for Non terrestrial Networks (NTN). ®

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