Deals, demos, delays and disappointments in 5G NTN (Part 1)

The interest in cellular non-terrestrial network technology and the business opportunity is reflected in the amount of activity in the space in recent years, as 3GPP 5G standards work has built momentum toward convergence of satellite and cellular networks and raised the possibility of true, ubiquitous (and maybe eventually, high-speed) connectivity.

NTN was one of the major topics at this year’s Mobile World Congress Barcelona, and dominated discussions at the Satellite Show 2024 in Washington, D.C. just a few weeks later. Mobile network operators, handset makers and chipset companies are striking partnerships, developing products and in some cases have already begun to provide services, with more expected to emerge this year.

However, space is still expensive and technically challenging, and while there are plenty of incumbents on both sides, many of the players pushing on NTN are start-ups or relatively young or small companies—and even among established corporate denizens, there have already been NTN missteps.

Here is a the first part of a run-down of major publicly known partnerships and services, deals and recent development progress—plus a few duds that have come along the way.

-In one of the best-known deals and one that has already resulted in a consumer smartphone-based service, Apple announced back in late 2022 that it was investing $450 million from its Advanced Manufacturing Fund in satellites and ground stations to support its Emergency SOS service on iPhone 14 models (and subsequently, iPhone 15 models) for customers in the United State and Canada.

The majority of that funding went to Globalstar to provide “critical enhancements” to the company’s 24-satellite LEO network and ground stations. Apple’s Emergency SOS via satellite service utilizes the spectrum in L and S bands. As Apple describes it, “When an iPhone user makes an Emergency SOS via satellite request, the message is received by one of Globalstar’s 24 satellites in low-earth orbit traveling at speeds of approximately 16,000 mph.The ground stations use new high-power antennas designed and manufactured specifically for Apple by Cobham Satcom in Concord, California. Cobham’s employees engineer and manufacture the high-powered antennas, which will receive signals transmitted by the satellite constellation.” Globalstar has said that Apple is allocated 85% of the capacity on its satellite constellation, with the satellite operator continuing to offer legacy services, including IoT connectivity, with the remaining 15%.

Apple has been offering the Emergency SOS service for free for two years after the activation of an iPhone 14 or 15 model. In fact, in November 2023, the company extended the free period for an additional year for existing iPhone 14 users, and also added a Roadside Assistance via satellite service to connect users to AAA—also free for two years. Apple iPhone users are also able to share their location via satellite to “reassure friends and family of their whereabouts while traveling off the grid.”

“Emergency SOS via satellite has helped save lives around the world. From a man who was rescued after his car plummeted over a 400-foot cliff in Los Angeles, to lost hikers found in the Apennine Mountains in Italy, we continue to hear stories of our customers being able to connect with emergency responders when they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to,” said Kaiann Drance, Apple’s vice president of Worldwide iPhone Product Marketing in late 2023 when the extension of free service was announced.

In February 2023, Globalstar said that Apple was lending the company $252 million to help cover upfront costs for replenishing its LEO constellation.

-Starlink has inked multiple agreements for providing direct-to-cellular service with mobile network operators, including T-Mobile US, Rogers in Canada, Japan’s KDDI, Optus in Australia and One NZ in New Zealand, Salt in Switzerland and Entel in Chile and Peru.

The satellite provider is getting closer to service launches. Starlink launched its first D2C-capable, or Starlink 2.0, satellites in January of this year, and the company said that within a few days of launch, it successfully sent and received the first text messages, using T-Mobile US’ terrestrial spectrum. Text service is set to begin this year, Starlink said, to be followed by voice, data and IoT services in 2025. The service is LTE-based; Starlink already has FCC permission to test direct-to-cellular capabilities in the field using T-Mo’s 1.9 GHz FDD spectrum. As Starlink describes it, its operator partners around the world “provide critical LTE spectrum in the 1.62.7 GHz range that we use to transmit our satellite signals. This allows Starlink to integrate like a standard roaming partner with operators, and together we provide services directly and seamlessly to their customers. Operators in our network have access to reciprocal global access that allows their users to access the service when they travel to one of our partner countries. There is incredible demand and high interest in this program, and handset providers and mobile operators alike are eager to test and participate in a successful rollout.”

-Direct-to-device service provider Skylo launched its service in January of this year, and also raised $37 million in a funding round in February, co-led by Intel Capital and Innovation Endeavors and joined by investors that included BMW i Ventures and then Samsung Catalyst Fund. The funding “expands Skylo’s scale and business operations to better support smartphones, wearable OEMs, IoT devices, and mobile network operator customers,” according to Skylo, which called it a “major step in Skylo’s commitment to making standards based non-terrestrial networks (NTN) more accessible and efficient for numerous sectors, including consumer, automotive, agriculture, energy, transportation, and beyond.”

“We were impressed with Skylo’s global connectivity solution that enables ‘always-on, always-connected’ communication for the automotive industry,” said Kasper Sage, managing partner at BMW i Ventures, in a statement. “Skylo has a proven solution and team that is going to make satellite connectivity a new standard for the next generation of vehicles while keeping people safe and making their experiences seamless wherever they may go.”

Tami Erwin, former CEO of Verizon Business, recently joined Skylo’s board of directors; within the past week, IoT module maker Semtech announced that it had integrated Skylo NTN access into two of Semtech’s HL78 modules, which also support terrestrial LPWA using Cat-M and NB-IoT (See Skylo’s list of certified devices, modules and chipsets here). Semtech said that the NTN access can be enabled with a software update which is expected to be commercially released this quarter, pending testing and certification with Skylo’s network. “Giving customers the option to connect using NB-IoT over a satellite network when traditional terrestrial coverage is not available is a major advantage,” Semtech said.

“By incorporating NTN support into our HL78 modules via a straightforward software update, we are enhancing the capabilities of our existing products, providing our customers with a substantial competitive edge,” said Larry Zibrik, VP and GM of modules at Semtech.

-Satellite direct-to-cellular company AST SpaceMobile announced in January that it had gained two new major financial backers: AT&T and Google came on as strategic investors, and AST received additional funding from existing partner Vodafone to support commercial roll-out of its technology.

The company announced that it gained aggregate new financing of up to $206.5 million from the investments of AT&T, Google and new capital from Vodafone, and that it plans to draw on an additional sum up to $51.5 million from a credit line. Those investments encompass $20 million in revenue commitments from AT&T that are predicated on the successful launch and operation of AST SpaceMobile’s first five commercial satellites and a minimum $25 million in revenue commitments from Vodafone. Both carriers have placed purchase orders in undisclosed amounts for AST SpaceMobile network equipment that will support planned commercial services. AT&T has already conducted tests with ASTSpaceMobile and is

Google and AST SpaceMobile agreed to joint work on product development, testing and implementation of AST SpaceMobile’s tech on Android devices.

AST SpaceMobile said that its BlueWalker 3 satellite currently in orbit is the largest-ever commercial communications array in low Earth orbit. It also has satellites in the works with beams designed to support the use of up to 40 megahertz of spectrum, which AST SpaceMobile says will could potentially enable data speeds of up to 120 Mbps. ASTSpaceMobile says that it already has agreements and deals in place with nearly 50 mobile network operators around the world that service around 2 billion customers, and that it anticipates that the direct-to-cellular technology could offer connectivity to 5.5 billion cellular devices in use today.

However, even as AT&T and AST conduct additional direct-to-cellular testing using 10-megahertz blocks of FirstNet and 800 MHz spectrum in Texas and Hawaii, ASTSpaceMobile said during its most recent quarterly call that the first five Bluebird satellites of its anticipated constellation have been delayed again due to supplier issues. The company had first planned to launch them before the end of 2023, then expected to launch in the first or second quarter of 2024; Chairman and CEO Abel Avellan said that the satellites are now expected to be transported to the launch site between July and August 2024.

-In November 2023, Qualcomm ended a partnership with Iridium that centered on pushing NTN development with a chipset that utilized Iridium’s proprietary satellite network. Despite having successfully developed and demonstrated the technology, smartphone makers weren’t opting to include Snapdragon Satellite in their devices, so Qualcomm terminated the deal. “While I’m disappointed that this partnership didn’t bear immediate fruit, we believe the direction of the industry is clear toward increased satellite connectivity in consumer devices,” said Iridium CEO Matt Desch in a statement last November, when the partnership ended. “Led by Apple today, MNOs and device manufacturers still plan, over time, to provide their customers with expanded coverage and new satellite-based features, and our global coverage and regulatory certainty make us well suited to be a key player in this emerging market. User experience will be critical to their success, and we’ve proven that we can provide a reliable, global capability to mobile users.”

Qualcomm has indicated in published reports that the lack of interest was due to smartphone OEMs preferring a standards-based approach—not a lack of interest in satellite connectivity per se. In a session at Satellite 2024 in Washington, D.C., Francesco Grilli, VP of product management at Qualcomm, said that within the Android ecosystem, there was “initially very high concern” that Apple’s emergency messaging capability would have a “devastating effect” on Android’s market share, which is already a minority of the U.S. smartphone market. “It had an impact, but it was not devastating,” Grilli said. (3) “In the end, the ecosystem decided that they didn’t want to start on a proprietary track if they could just wait an extra year or two and get on the standard track.” Two things to note here: 1) It’s not out of character for the cellular industry to jumpstart time-to-market with a proprietary solution that outpaces the standards and then scrap it once the standardized version is available; 5G TF, anyone? and 2) Apple smartphones sales did surpass Samsung devices during 2023 on a global basis, marking the first time since 2010 that Samsung hasn’t been at the top of the smartphone market; however, IDC at least credits that both to Apple’s ascendency and diverse offerings from other Android players.

-More recently, the Bullitt Group, which licensed its technology to players including Motorola for its Defy 2 rugged smartphone with satellite messaging capabilities supported by a MediaTek chipset, disintegrated. The company, founded in 2009, appeared to be on the rise for years and reported profits of more than a million dollars in 2017, upon which it sold a majority stake to a private equity firm. In its financial filings, Bullitt blamed the Covid-19 pandemic disruptions to its business as well as the war in Ukraine reducing its sales in Eastern Europe; the company lost $10 million each year in 2021 and 2022, with its losses ballooning to $22 million in 2022. Bullitt launched its Defy satellite link dongle and smartphone in 2023 and won a “best in show” device Global Mobile (GLOMO) award at MWC Barcelona 2023 for the dongle—but the company didn’t have the working capital to fund its hardware sales, according to the filing, and by September 2023 it was seeking a buyer. By December 2023, Bullitt was in dire financial straits and although it tried to find additional financing, it was unable to do so and entered an administrative state and fired its 70 employees in February 2024. Bullitt had about $253 in its bank account when it entered insolvency, and more than two billion dollars in secured and unsecured debt.

The company’s founders bought its IP for about $265,000. According to the Bullitt website, the company offered a 12-month free trial of its SOS service and plans that started at $4.99 a month.

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