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Independent analytics company Opensignal has analysed over 100 global markets to take a closer look into the cellular ‘no signal’ problem that mobile users face, which satellite connectivity seeks to solve.

The analysis comes timely as Apple adds an Emergency SoS using satellites to the iPhone 14 range initially available in the US and Canada. The feature may possibly be available on cellular smartwatches as well.

Huawei has also introduced a similar feature in the Mate 50.

To date, Qualcomm, Ericsson, and Thales are starting to test satellite connectivity as part of their 5G Release 17 development work.

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Rugged phones manufacturer Bullitt will launch a smartphone with satellite connectivity in early 2023. Apple and Globalstar are rumoured to be working together.

Elon Musk’s Starlink has announced a deal with T-Mobile US also for launch in 2023 while Google has confirmed support will arrive in Android 14 also in 2023.

Opensignal said Apple is able to move quickly because it has more in-house control over hardware and software than many of its competitors.

It added companies need to gauge how important low earth orbit connectivity is in order to launch it for mobile users.

This is critical given the other tasks needed such as creating and testing new dedicated hardware, adding software support, gaining per country regulatory approval.

Service providers will likely aim to target users in richer markets first as those users will be most able to pay additional tariff fees.

Across the G7 group of leading economies, Opensignal 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 it will be more valuable to users than others, for example, the ability to send an emergency message when off-grid during a car breakdown or because of a hiking accident.

Some locations are simply extremely costly to reach and there will always be gaps where satellite connectivity can help.

Initial launches of smartphone satellite connectivity by Huawei and Apple focus on emergency messaging because:

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

2. Battery power may limit more demanding services. Unlike fixed satellite dishes, smartphones have relatively small batteries that are needed for all functions. Off grid, an owner will need the battery to support navigation — GPS is also battery hungry — and may need to use a bright display for daylight visibility—again a battery drain. Short messaging will minimise the additional drain on the smartphone.

3. Messaging keeps data costs low. Short messages — whether iMessage, Signal, WhatsApp or Line — use modest amounts of data. This means the mobile service provider can manage the roaming data costs. This is similar to the model for SMS in the late 90s.

While nationally, the amount of time users spend without a mobile signal may be relatively low, there are large regional differences that offer opportunities for satellite service.

In the US, the national no signal percentage is 1.09%, but in eight states users spent approximately double 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%), and Oregon (2.05%).

Users on vacation will value the peace of mind of satellite connectivity as well as those state’s residents.

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

The challenge for service providers eyeing satellite connectivity lies in markets with less cellular signal availability which tend to be emerging markets.

In those markets, GDP per head tends to be lower and so the commercial opportunity may need to involve governmental organisations, to tie into meaningful connectivity programs, rather than the private sector alone.

Companies also need to assess the other ways in which to fill in coverage gaps, Opensignal sugested.

In rural locations, regulators and operators may do well to look to national roaming agreements to fill in quick win gaps in service. In other words, where one cellular operator has service, but others currently do not, should regulators intervene to mandate national roaming?

Most likely this will offer a better experience than satellite connectivity, but equally it will not solve the connectivity challenge on its own, Opensignal said.

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