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Independent analytics firm Opensignal has analyzed more than 100 global markets to take a closer look at the cellular “lack of signal” problem faced by mobile users, which satellite communication seeks to solve.

The analysis comes just in time as Apple adds emergency SoS using satellite service to the iPhone 14 range initially available in the US and Canada. The feature may also be available on cellular smartwatches.

Huawei also introduced a similar feature in the Mate 50.

So far, Qualcomm, Ericsson and Thales have begun testing satellite connectivity as part of their 5G version 17 development work.

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Powerful phone maker Bullitt will launch a smartphone with satellite connectivity in early 2023. Apple and Globalstar are rumored to be working together.

Elon Musk’s Starlink announced a deal with T-Mobile US to launch it also in 2023 while Google confirmed that support will reach Android 14 as well in 2023.

Al-Fath He said Apple is able to move quickly because it has more internal control over hardware and software than many of its competitors.

She added that companies need to gauge the importance of low-Earth orbit communication in order to release it to mobile users.

This is critical due to other tasks needed such as building and testing new custom hardware, adding software support, and obtaining regulatory approval for each country.

Service providers will likely aim to target users in wealthier markets first because those users will be better able to pay additional tariffs.

Across the G7 group of leading economies, open data shows clear differences in the proportion of time users spend without cellular service, ranging from 2.14% in France to just 0.51% in Japan.

While these percentages may seem small, there are times when they will be more valuable to users than others, for example, being able to send an emergency message when you are off grid during a car breakdown or due to a traffic accident.

Some locations are very expensive to get to and there will always be gaps where satellite communication can help.

Initial launches of smartphone satellite connectivity by Huawei and Apple focus on emergency messages for the following reasons:

1. Smartphones may struggle to see all the fast-moving low-earth satellites. Existing broadband satellite data services suffer interruptions when the satellite dish lacks a clear view of the sky and therefore cannot see the full orbital constellation. Limited visibility of the sky can also slow signal acquisition. This situation is more likely for a smartphone user where trees, mountains or buildings may limit the view of the sky. However, the SMS service will be able to infiltrate when the mobile device can see a satellite to avoid the need for continuous service.

2. Battery power may limit the most demanding services. Unlike stationary satellite dishes, smartphones contain relatively small batteries that are required for all functions. Off grid, the owner will need the battery to support navigation – GPS is battery hungry – and may need to use a bright screen to see daylight – again, which drains the battery. SMS will reduce the extra burden on the smartphone.

3. Messaging keeps data costs low. SMS – whether it’s iMessage, Signal, WhatsApp or Line – uses modest amounts of data. This means that your mobile service provider can manage your roaming data costs. This is similar to the SMS model of the late 1990s.

While at the national level the amount of time users spend without a mobile signal may be relatively low, there are significant regional differences that provide opportunities for satellite service.

In the US, the percentage of no signal nationwide is 1.09%, but in eight states users spent twice or more time than the national average without cellular service: Alaska (4.25%), Wyoming (3.98%), Vermont (3.86) %), Montana (3.48%), West Virginia (3.44%), Idaho (2.47%), Colorado (2.08%), Oregon (2.05%).

Users on vacation will appreciate peace of mind from satellite connectivity as well as residents of that state.

Likewise, across Canada, Opensignal sees no signal time range from 1.26% in Alberta to 2.2% in British Columbia. In France, and especially in Brazil, the time users spend without service is higher which indicates clear global opportunities.

The challenge for service providers looking to connect via satellite is markets where cellular signals are less available and tend to be emerging markets.

In those markets, GDP per capita tends to be lower, and so the business opportunity may need to involve government organizations, to link them to meaningful communication programmes, rather than the private sector alone.

Companies also need to evaluate other ways in which they are filling coverage gaps.

In rural areas, regulators and operators may do well if they look at national roaming agreements to fill gaps in quick service profit. In other words, when one cellular operator has service, while others currently don’t, should regulators step in to enforce national roaming?

This will likely provide a better experience than a satellite connection, but it won’t solve the connection challenge on its own, Opensignal said.

This first appeared in the CommsWire subscription newsletter on September 12, 2022.

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