TAMPA, FL – CEO Matt Desch said Oct. 20 that primary direct-to-smartphone services from the Iridium constellation will support episodic communications for emergencies and other unforeseen needs in remote areas around the world.
Similar to LEO competitor Globalstar’s plan to bring basic SOS connectivity to the iPhone 14 next month, Desch said its incoming service is designed for occasional use.
He said there would be little overlap with Iridium’s existing personal communications business, which provides low-data-rate remote voice and data services to specialized mobile devices for leisure, marine and other casual users.
Iridium remains very cautious about plans to enter the smartphone market directly.
The operator entered into a development agreement in July with an unnamed company to enable its technology in smartphones.
Their approval hinges on the service provider deal, which Iridium still expects to close before the end of 2022.
According to Apple, iPhone 14 users outside a cellular network in the US and Canada will be able to provide emergency responders with information by choosing from a series of SMS messages.
“Obviously, if you make a smartphone call, you can do more than just hit the emergency button,” Desch said during the Iridium financial results call on October 20 for the three months through the end of September.
“I won’t go into exactly how and what you can do, but our network is very effective at sending information back and forth. So a lot can be done.”
Apple funds the majority of new Globalstar satellites to support its direct-to-smartphone plans.
Unlike Globalstar and most other companies that have announced plans to enter this market, Desch said Iridium will not need to invest in a new constellation.
“[W]I think we have a lot of capabilities to support the services that we expect using our existing network and existing spectrum.
Like Globalstar, Iridium also has global permission to use Spectrum to connect satellites with devices on Earth, including smartphones.
Meanwhile, companies like SpaceX have to secure regulatory approvals for the frequencies they need to connect directly to smartphones.
SpaceX plans to upgrade its Starlink broadband portfolio to offer direct smartphone connectivity starting in the US next year in partnership with T-Mobile.
Iridium’s long-term goal is to connect other types of consumer devices directly to satellites, according to Desch, including potential tablets and watches.
The company also has long-term plans for the possibility of integrating its technology into cars, “not for everyday use, but as a complement to other technologies used in those vehicles.”
However, he is skeptical about predictions that direct smartphone connectivity could become a tens of billions of dollars market.
“It really means the kind of high-speed, seamless, action in your pocket, anywhere, on the planet,” he said, which takes several years — “if there ever was one,” because of the investment, technology and regulatory work required.
Iridium’s commercial voice and data revenue increased 10% to about $50 million for the three months ending at the end of September, compared to the same period last year.
The increase in total revenue helped climb 14% to just over $184 million as the company continues to add more subscribers to its business.
Iridium reported an 8% increase in operating profit before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) to nearly $108 million, a record for the operator.
The strong growth prompted the company to revise its full-year outlook. It now expects full-year EBITDA to be $420 million, at the end of previous forecasts, and to deliver 8-9% revenue growth.
Competing Financing Advance
California startup eSAT Global says it also doesn’t need new spectrum licenses or satellites to break into the live smartphone market.
The project is developing a chip to enable phones to communicate with satellites in geostationary orbit (GEO). The technology aims to take advantage of unused capacity on satellites operated by its partners Yahsat and Inmarsat, which are based in the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom, respectively.
Yahsat Announcing the investment of October 11 in eSAT as the startup seeks to persuade smartphone makers to modify chips to take advantage of this satellite network.
The startup also plans to use the technology to connect low-power Internet of Things (IoT) devices directly to GEO satellites.
According to eSAT CEO Rick Somerton, the project only needs to raise $4 million to launch commercial IoT services next year.
Somerton said October 19 during the APSCC 2022 Satellite Conference and Exhibition in Seoul, South Korea, that the capital costs of providing a direct-to-smartphone service are “probably two times lower by volume than any of the LEOs.”
He said the services would start with a “two-second latency” from the start, without the need to launch additional satellites, as it would augment the existing GEO infrastructure.
For current, unmodified phones, eSAT is developing a small hub device that Somerton says will cost about $50 to enable satellite calling on many nearby phones.
The network will have the capacity to simultaneously serve one million devices that send about 1.5 billion messages per day, according to Somerton.
“The capacity will go beyond just emergency messages in the United States and Canada,” he added.
James Alderdes, Virginia-based vice president of Asia Pacific, Link Global, told the conference that his startup had raised $27 million for a suite of custom low-Earth orbit satellites that would connect directly to unmodified phones.
Lynk deployed its first operational network satellite in April and expects SpaceX to launch three more satellites before the end of this year to provide initial services.
Four satellites will enable users to send and receive text messages About four to eight times a dayDepending on their latitudes, Alderdice said Lynk is getting close to a Series B tour that will bring it to an additional 100 satellites.
Link expects to deploy 50 pizza satellites by the end of 2023, which he said will close the service gap to between 30 and 45 minutes.
Alderdes said the “continuous service” would require fewer than 1,000 satellites in certain areas.
Meanwhile, the Texas-based AST SpaceMobile project is preparing to publish 64 square meter antenna on a much larger satellite called BlueWalker-3.
This satellite will serve as a prototype for the commercial spacecraft, which AST expects to begin deployment late next year, for a higher bandwidth smartphone direct connection service.