Dusseldorf When the SMS with the content “This is a test” popped up on their smartphone, the engineers on the Falkland Islands burst into calls of joy – which included some expletives. The special feature: For the first time, an SMS was sent directly from a satellite to a conventional cell phone.
The start-up Lynk made history on February 24, 2020. The Cygnus satellite sent the short message to an Android cell phone from a height of 550 kilometers. “We built the first cell tower in space,” said Charles Miller, Lynk’s CEO, at the time.
New technologies like that of the American start-up open up new opportunities and markets. Suddenly everyone can make calls, text or surf anywhere. In addition to Lynk, a number of companies are working on this – including the tech giant Apple.
The Apple company, which will probably present the new iPhone 13 in a few days, has long been interested in satellites. According to information from analysts, the new model should be able to communicate directly with a satellite. It forwards the signal to an earth station, where it is forwarded to the regular telephone network.
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This is a revolutionary idea because it would practically mean the end of dead zones. This is made possible by new antennas and satellites that orbit in low earth orbit.
Apple is working with Globalstar – and driving the share price
Due to the short distance to earth, internet signals can be sent with short latency (delay). The American provider Globalstar is traded as a partner of Apple – its share price has almost doubled since August.
According to experts, the space functions of the new iPhone will initially only be available to a very limited extent, for example for emergency calls. In addition, the service can only be offered in certain countries. “Apple will implement a well-known satellite telephony technology in its new iPhone models,” says Onur Karabey, CEO of Alcan Systems, a German start-up researching a new generation of antennas for satellite signals
That could change in the coming years, however. “This is Apple’s first step, the iPhone 14 or 15 could possibly offer more satellite-based services,” says Matthias Spott, head of Eighty Leo, who wants to set up a satellite constellation with the start-up Kleo Connect.
Some companies are already working on a “global broadband via satellite”: AST Spacemobile or Lynk from the USA. “If the technology worked, it would change the world,” says Bill Ray, Gartner wireless connectivity expert.
The crux of a satellite phone is the antenna. In order to establish an Internet connection, with the current technology it is quite large and consumes a lot of energy. Only with such an antenna can data-intensive applications, such as watching a film, be carried out via satellite signal.
The question is also preoccupying customers of Starlink, which has also been offering an Internet service in Germany for a few months. The SpaceX subsidiary is currently building a satellite constellation in a relatively low orbit. SpaceX is one of the leading companies in terms of technology.
Starlink’s receiving antenna is already quite small, but is still about the diameter of a pizza. A few months ago, SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced that he would develop an antenna for “planes, ships, large trucks and campers”. But not for cars, it is “much too big” for that.
A small antenna for the smartphone is still a long way off. “Companies that are new to the field need at least four to five years for this,” says Onur Hamza Karabey, CEO of Alcan Systems. The start-up in Darmstadt is working on ultra-thin flat antennas with low power consumption.
Giant AST satellites are worrying NASA
AST Spacemobile takes a completely different approach. The Texan company does not want to enlarge the antenna on the cell phone, but on the satellite. However, the idea is far from undisputed. Behind the start-up are financially strong investors such as Vodafone and the Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten. AST put the first satellite into orbit last year.
168 more are to be placed in an earth orbit of 720 kilometers in the next few years. The satellites are gigantic and, according to the American space agency NASA, have a 900 square meter antenna with a radius of up to 30 meters.
The size worries NASA. In a letter to the US communications authority last October, the space agency issued an urgent warning about the AST satellites. Due to their size and number, they would be in the way of other satellites and the risk of collisions was high. According to NASA calculations, two to six evasive maneuvers are necessary annually, “almost three times as much as before,” the letter says.
With the help of more than 750 patents, AST Spacemobile aims to enable an Internet connection to conventional cellular devices. AST speaks of a market potential of more than a trillion dollars. Indeed, ubiquitous broadband would transform the telecommunications market.
However, AST Spacemobile faces many problems. The technology has not yet been demonstrated. It is not clear whether the data processing rate can be maintained for a large number of customers. “I’m skeptical,” says Gartner analyst Ray.
The start-up Lynk also wants to use a fleet of satellites to build a global telephone network. However, their satellites are much smaller than those of AST and also orbit a few hundred kilometers lower in the earth’s orbit.
Antennas are getting smaller and smaller
Lynk does not promise a 4G or 5G connection with transmission speeds of 100 megabits per second, but a much slower Internet. According to Lynk boss Miller, this would still be a groundbreaking thing: “We connect to more than a billion people who have no connection.”
Both Lynk and AST use phased array antennas in their satellites. These antennas were developed by the military and have a strong directional effect, as the individual radiators are fed in with different phase positions.
The advantage: the antennas become smaller. There is no longer any need for “satellite dishes” that previously bundled and amplified the signals.
However, the new antennas cannot solve a fundamental problem: The so-called L-band is used as a frequency that cannot penetrate houses, mountains or tall trees, for example. So there must always be visual contact between the mobile phone and the satellite.
Should the new iPhone have the satellite function, then it would be a small and a big step at the same time. Even if the application were only possible to a very limited extent, it would show where the journey is going. “That’s great, space-based services are finally arriving in everyday life,” says satellite entrepreneur Spott.
The emergency call function is also an important thing for the customer. In practice, it will hardly be used at all, but it takes away users’ fear of being inaccessible. You can also rely on your mobile phone in emergencies. “Apple is about the good feeling,” says Spott, “when I go to the mountains or with the sailboat off the coast and don’t have to have a satellite phone with me.”
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