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Independent analytics firm Opensignal has analyzed over 100 global markets to take a closer look at the cellular “no signal” problem faced by mobile users, which satellite connectivity aims to solve.

The analysis comes at the right time as Apple is adding an emergency SoS that uses satellites to the iPhone 14 range originally available in the US and Canada. The feature may also be available on mobile smartwatches.

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

So far, Qualcomm, Ericsson and Thales are starting satellite connectivity testing as part of their development work for 5G Release 17.

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Rugged phone maker Bullitt will launch a satellite-connected smartphone in early 2023. Rumor has it that Apple and Globalstar are working together.

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

According to Opensignal, Apple is able to move quickly because it has more internal control over hardware and software than many of its competitors.

It added that companies need to assess the importance of low-Earth orbit connectivity in order to launch it for mobile users.

This is critical given the other tasks required such as building and testing new dedicated hardware, adding software support, and obtaining regulatory approval per country.

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

Across the G7 group of leading economies, Opensignal data shows significant 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, they are sometimes more valuable to users than others, such as the ability to send an emergency message if they are disconnected from the network during a car breakdown or a hiking accident.

Some places are just extremely expensive to reach and there will always be gaps where satellite connectivity can help.

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

1. Smartphones can have trouble seeing all fast-moving near-Earth satellites. Existing broadband home satellite data services suffer from interruptions when the satellite dish does not have a clear view of the sky and therefore cannot see the full orbiting constellation. Obscured sky views can also slow down signal acquisition. This situation is more likely for a smartphone user where trees, mountains, or buildings may obscure the view of the sky. However, short message service can slip through if the mobile device can see a satellite, thereby avoiding the need for continuous service.

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2. Battery performance may limit more demanding services. In contrast to permanently installed satellite dishes, smartphones have relatively small batteries that are required for all functions. Off the grid, an owner will need the battery to help with navigation – GPS is also battery hungry – and may need to use a bright display for daylight visibility – again a battery drain. Short messages minimize the additional load on the smartphone.

3. Messaging keeps data costs low. Short messages – whether iMessage, Signal, WhatsApp or Line – consume modest amounts of data. This means that the mobile operator can manage roaming data costs. This is similar to the model for SMS in the late 1990s.

While the amount of time users spend without a cellular signal nationally can be relatively small, there are large regional variations that present opportunities for satellite services.

In the US, the nationwide rate of being without a signal is 1.09%, but users in eight states spent about twice as long or more time than the national average without a cellphone: 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%).

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Vacationers will appreciate the peace of mind of satellite connectivity, as will residents of those states.

Similarly, 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, suggesting that there are clear global opportunities.

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

GDP per capita tends to be lower in these markets, and thus commercial opportunities may need to involve government organizations to tie into meaningful connectivity programs, rather than just the private sector.

Businesses also need to look at other ways to fill supply gaps, Opensignal suggested.

In rural areas, regulators and operators might do well to consider national roaming agreements to fill gaps in service for quick wins. In other words, if one wireless carrier has service but others don’t currently, should regulators step in to mandate national roaming?

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

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

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