Multi-billionaire Elon Musk’s current overriding obsession with owning the “digital public square” through potentially buying Twitter does not compare to communications pathways that his company – and others – are opening on the new frontier of space.
Notably, Musk’s aerospace venture SpaceX has launched over 2,100 satellites into low earth orbit (LEO) as part of its Starlink constellation. The miniature satellites provide wireless internet access in 32 countries, for those that buy the $ 599 Starlink dish.
This has led people to wonder what else SpaceX could do with the Starlink swarm. It has recently been speculated that NASA could use the Starlink LEO constellation to replace its aging space telecoms network that connects the International Space Station to earth.
The space smartphone pretender
All over the internet, Musk fanatics have been talking up a Tesla smartphone that connects to the Starlink LEO network. Yet Musk himself derided all smartphones as old technology in September 2020:
“Definitely not. Smartwatches & phones are yesterday’s technology, Neuralinks are the future. ”
The hype about the device originated with ADR Studio house design, which started posting pictures and a video of the Model P / Pi design concept in September 2021. ADR Studio says that the proposed device offers a “native connection” with Starlink satellites, a solar recharging panel on the back, and “Neuralink capabilities.”
Forget any brain – to – machine link for the moment though; the current Starlink satellite swarm barely supports people moving about on its network! In fact, SpaceX has just started to roll out the most basic roaming facility on Starlink.
The company has added a so-called portability feature for its Starlink network this month. CNBC reported on May 5th that SpaceX sent an email out to customers announcing that for an extra $ 25 a month, they can temporarily move their dish to a new location – raising the price of the service to $ 135 monthly. The company only offers the portability connection on a best – effort basis and cannot guarantee the 100 to 200 Mbps downloads it generally offers.
So, the Starlink swarm can only just support people moving their dish every few months and customers have to pay for the pleasure! Adding a mobile phone that can change position on the fly seems like far too big a challenge for the satellite network in its current form.
This hasn’t stopped Musk fanatics from boosting the Model Pi despite the fact that neither SpaceX nor Tesla has ever confirmed or denied the existence of the smartphone. The fervor around the probably imaginary phone has just continued to grow. With many reports claiming the phone would connect directly to your brain and could work – hahaha – on Mars !!!
Mars is currently around 150 million miles away from our world. How exactly would the Starlink LEO constellation traveling at 340 miles above the earth be able to connect with phones on Mars? It’s a patently ridiculous idea.
Real connections from space
The concept of using a LEO swarm to directly connect to phones on earth, however, is becoming eminently less fanciful. We have previously written about how the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) has added a non – terrestrial networks (NTN) element to 5G Release 17, which was completed at the end of March this year.
The NTN aspect of the latest 5G specification will enable a normal 5G phone to link directly to a satellite in space. The direct connection will only allow low data rate applications, such as text messaging, and will likely be quite expensive. Satellite phones today are pretty costly, however a 5G alternative may cut down the number of devices you have to carry when hiking in the wilderness, for instance. Commercial 5G NTN – compatible devices could start to arrive on the market late in 2023 or sometime in 2024.
Japanese operator SoftBank Corp. is also working on a satellite – based NTN project to extend its services outside of its domestic market. Hidebumi Kitahara, vice president and head of the Service Planning Technology Division at Softbank says that 2022 will be “the first year of services” for the NTN scheme. He expects that SoftBank will launch OneWeb and Skylo satellite solutions by the end of the year.
Startup AST SpaceMobile has just been granted an FCC experimental license to launch its BlueWalker 3 test satellite this summer. The company says that the satellite will directly link with standard cellphones on the ground.
AST SpaceMobile intends to start testing the satellite network using low-band cellphone frequencies in Hawaii and Texas. The company claims that it is building “the first and only space – based cellular broadband network designed to be accessible directly by standard mobile phones.”
Space startup Lynk Global may dispute that bold promise. The Virginia – based company says it launched “the world’s first commercial cell – tower – in – space” this April. Lynk says it plans to launch its global commercial service by the end of 2022, having signed deals with a dozen operators around the world.
There are plenty of companies and groups that are working to make direct connections from a satellite to a 4G or 5G cellphone a standard feature. Providing, of course, that would – be customers are prepared to pay the high prices bound to be demanded for an immediate space link with a LEO satellite.
Traditional satellite phones are chunkier and more expensive than their cellphone equivalents, and monthly service plans are costly as well. Therefore, users that need a satellite in order to get mobile coverage may well prefer a direct satellite link to their cellphone, especially as this means there would be one less device to carry around and lose!
This kind of astral connection could start to be offered as early as the end of 2022. By 2025, this type of link may even become commonplace. From hikers that want a solid emergency link when tramping around a cellular – free wilderness to full-time RV enthusiasts that still need to contact friends and family, a direct – space link could prove invaluable.
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