Taking Off at CES: Satellite Communications on Smartphones

One of my highlights from CES 2023 was the emerging area of satellite-to-phone connectivity. At the event in Las Vegas, chipmaker Qualcomm demonstrated its Snapdragon Satellite solution designed for future Android-powered smartphones. And MediaTek, Qualcomm’s direct competitor, partnered with Bullitt, manufacturer of rugged smartphones, to show off its standards-based satellite messaging service. Only a few months after Apple added emergency satellite messaging capabilities to the iPhone 14, competition in this space is heating up.

Snapdragon Satellite

On a dry lake bed some 20 miles outside Las Vegas, Qualcomm gathered a group of media and industry analysts for a demonstration of its satellite-based texting service for Android smartphones. The demonstration was conducted by a Qualcomm representative — participants weren’t able to test the device themselves.

Billed as the Android ecosystem’s answer to Apple’s Emergency SOS satellite-based service, Snapdragon Satellite was designed in partnership with Iridium Communications and will be integrated into the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset for premium Android devices entering the market in the second half of 2023. Qualcomm’s partnership with Iridium presents a technology platform that Android phone-makers and Internet-based messaging providers can use to differentiate their products and service offerings beyond the exclusively emergency-based uses illustrated by Apple’s iPhone 14.

Qualcomm’s solution uses Garmin’s significant experience in handling emergency requests through its inReach range of satellite communicators. Snapdragon Satellite is a software and hardware solution incorporating Iridium’s proprietary waveforms and L-band radio frequency (RF) front-end. Smartphone designers can use existing internal antennas to support this satellite communication, minimizing the need for additional RF components and complexity. The focus on top-tier Android phones as a go-to-market strategy plays into manufacturers’ desire for differentiation, tapping into a segment looking for premium services.

Unlike Apple’s service, which offers a limited set of texting options, Snapdragon Satellite is designed to work as a regular SMS attached to the user’s phone number with location-based information embedded in the header of each message. This capability will allow companies to earn revenue from non-emergency applications of text communication as a new form of premium service.

A standout advantage of Snapdragon Satellite is the speed of sending and receiving messages. An Emergency SOS message sent from an Apple iPhone 14 takes at least 15 seconds to arrive as it requires communication with a ground-based gateway, whereas Snapdragon Satellite texts are expected to be delivered in about three seconds once a connection with the satellite is established. This is because each of Iridium’s 66 satellites constantly maintain four inter-satellite links, allowing data to be transmitted even if the connected satellite isn’t directly over a ground-based gateway. As the Iridium constellation already features global coverage, this inter-satellite link efficiently routes data to the nearest satellite-to-gateway connection, allowing for fast delivery.

Snapdragon Satellite offers some interesting improvements over Apple’s Emergency SOS, but the solution is currently just a technology platform. Apple’s solution is already built into all iPhone 14 devices and will be included in future models, whereas the Android ecosystem is just beginning to design Snapdragon Satellite into phones that won’t come to market for at least six months.

Bullitt Satellite Messenger

Bullitt also demonstrated its solution for satellite communications in an Android-powered smartphone during CES, taking us to the top of a mountain ridge near Red Rock Canyon, west of the Las Vegas strip. The company appears to have a head start on Qualcomm, using a consumer-ready smartphone that’s already in production. This used Bullitt’s Satellite Messenger app that offers check-ins and paid two-way messaging services on top of the core emergency assistance. The firm revealed that the next device in the Motorola Defy range of rugged smartphones will be the first to support the service.

Satellite Messenger is the culmination of two years of working closely with MediaTek; satellite connectivity partners Inmarsat and an unnamed geostationary satellite operator; Skylo, which manages satellite networks and connections to users; and event response specialists FocusPoint International for triage and management of SOS requests. Because it uses geostationary satellites in a fixed position above the equator, unlike Qualcomm’s solution, which relies on low-Earth orbit satellites, Bullitt’s service doesn’t need frequent repositioning of the smartphone during messaging. Users need only a direct line of sight to the sky.

And unlike Qualcomm’s focus on premium devices, Bullitt’s play aims to make the service mainstream by introducing it on more-affordable devices like the Motorola Defy with flexible monthly tariff plans. Bullitt’s customers are primarily front-line and mission-critical workers who value its rugged phone designs, widely known through the Cat brand and Bullitt’s partnership with Motorola. Always-available connectivity is important to this audience, often working in remote locations with limited cellular coverage.

The technology used by Bullitt is a 3GPP standards-based version of narrowband IoT over non-terrestrial networks. This standards-based approach allows compatibility with different types of satellite, enabling Bullitt to move from geostationary to low-Earth orbit constellations as future technologies take advantage of the 3GPP Release 18 New Radio standard in the road map to 5G Advanced. This evolution will extend beyond narrowband text services to more feature-rich data services in the future.

Bullitt’s choice to use existing geostationary satellite constellations will provide good overall coverage around the world, except at the north and south poles. However, it comes with limitations, notably increased network latency because the signal has a longer distance to travel and because of coverage gaps as users get further away from the equator. Also, Bullitt’s approach requires users to download its messaging app rather than using traditional SMS messaging associated with their phone number.

With these announcements in mind, 2023 is set to be a vibrant year for satellite communications on smartphones. Other companies looking at this area include T-Mobile, SpaceX and AST SpaceMobile, the latter of which is trying to solve satellite connectivity problems by deploying a constellation that will enable communication on standard 4G and 5G devices using terrestrial spectrum. As competition in the area heats up, we will continue to monitor new releases and announcements, with our in-depth market study on non-terrestrial networks coming in March 2023.