Satellite phone service could soon become the norm

America's Big 3 cellcos all signed up already, though most of the 'non terrestrial' tech not actually live yet

Convergence between mobile networks and satellite services is becoming the norm rather than a niche strategy: a full 91 telecoms operators worldwide are now signed up to agreements with satellite providers.

According to a report from mobile industry analyst GSMA Intelligence, the mobile-satellite contracts in place now cover about 60 percent of the total global market of mobile subscribers, with new deals still being announced. It should be noted that few of these services are actually available yet.

However, the general direction of travel represents a market shift from the telcos, with satellite increasingly viewed as a pragmatic means of network extension and access to fresh revenue streams.

In fact, the major premise of satellite connectivity is that it can extend to places where terrestrial networks do not reach or coverage is patchy, and thus about 80 to 90 percent of the links between telcos and satellite operators address remote area connectivity, the report notes. However, servicing maritime users and providing emergency coverage in the wake of natural disasters are also use cases under consideration.

Market momentum in the last 18 to 24 months was driven by direct-to-cell developments, underpinned by updates to the 3GPP 5G radio specifications that incorporate non-terrestrial network (NTN) compatibility.

In fact, the integration of NTN compatibility in 3GPP Release 17 and 18 has made direct-to-cell scalable because it opens up a huge addressable base of smartphones and other devices such as IoT sensors capable of tapping directly into satellite services, GSMA Intelligence says.

In the US market alone, all of the big three cell network operators have signed agreements with satellite providers to extend their services; Verizon and AT&T teamed up with AST SpaceMobile, and T-Mobile US linked arms with SpaceX's Starlink back in 2022.

According to GSMA Intelligence, Starlink now has a total of 17 agreements in place, while AST SpaceMobile has 24 and Lynk Global has 15. A phased implementation is expected for most services, starting with support for SMS text messages and voice, followed by an upgrade to data/internet connectivity as satellite capacity expands.

The largest number of supplier contracts is across Asia, but representation is broadly evenly distributed across the world, according to the report.

Looking at the constellation size and coverage of the satellite operators, Starlink is out in front with about 6,000 satellites in orbit, GSMA Intelligence says, although it should be noted that only recently launched vehicles currently support direct-to-cell capability.

Eutelsat OneWeb has the next highest number of deployments, with approximately 650 satellites in place, representing most of its constellation. AST SpaceMobile only has a single test satellite in orbit and has yet to loft any of the BlueBird units it will need to provide a commercial service. Amazon’s Project Kuiper likewise only has a pair of test satellites in orbit.

One dark horse is China, whose China Satellite Network Group plans to launch over 12,000 satellites in the future, but as GSMA Intelligence notes, "It is hard to extrapolate direct comparisons given the likely level of government support involved in financing launches and operations, and the fact that China's satellite capacity is more of a domestic story compared to Starlink and others in international markets."

The key takeaway from the report is that satellite connectivity looks like it will become just another part of mobile comms, although it isn't clear if this will be included in a customer's service plan or marketed as an add-on extra. ®

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