Connected living is now the basic way of life. From checking a restaurant menu using a QR code to banking using a mobile app, consumers need their devices to be always connected. Thanks to the evolution of wireless and mobile technologies, now we can connect more devices over wider ranges of applications and geographies. After 5G and eSIM, the next frontier is satellite internet. We explain here what the future of communication can possibly hold.
After the massive success of LTE/4G with consumer devices, 5G has been more about non-consumer applications. While 5G expanded the speed and density of devices that can connect to wireless networks, such improvement didn’t bring much consumer benefits. In simple terms, if the human eye can barely notice video improvements beyond 4K streaming – which is well achieved by LTE at 25 Mbps – why on earth would need consumers need 1,000 Mbps speeds on mobile devices?
That’s why the benefits of 5G have been mostly related to industrial IoT applications that can benefit from 5G higher speed and lower latency. Connected factories, self-driving cars, and medical robotics are among such applications.
While still in its early growth stages, Embedded SIM or eSIM is gaining popularity among consumers who get to know about it. And as it evolves to iSIM (integrated SIM), eSIM will ultimately become a default feature of consumer devices like Bluetooth. Whether allowing online activation of wireless services, affordable mobile roaming, and multiple plans on one device, eSIM benefits have been mostly consumer focused. That’s why many wireless carriers are cautiously marketing the technology, as it can potentially change the way consumers buy wireless subscriptions.
So far eSIM has provided consumers with better access to wireless networks and will soon offer access to satellite internet as we’ll illustrate next.
Satellite communications has been around for few decades now. It started with high orbit satellites that are expensive to deploy and have latency, capacity, and uptime limitations. Satellite phone services have been available from providers like Globalstar and Inmarsat for remote communications, but they have been still costly, as much as $50/month for 10 minutes. And then a new generation of low earth orbiting (LEO) satellite service providers like HughesNet, SpaceX, and Viasat managed to offer faster and more affordable satellite internet.
LEO satellite internet is still far from being widely available to consumers due to:
- Requirement for special hardware (e.g. special satellite receiver/phone)
- Better wireless broadband alternatives in populated areas
- Limited availability of the service to a niche of remote use cases
Wireless meets Satellite
Now when you combine wireless with satellite things become more interesting. What the heck does that mean?
To solve the device compatibility issues, Satellite internet service can go through wireless networks of LTE & 5G to get to consumer devices. This can happen in two ways:
- Satellites can connect remote or hard to connect cell towers to the internet, like SpaceX is doing in Ukraine
- Satellites can utilize LTE & 5G bands to directly connect existing phones to the internet, like AST SpaceMobile is trying to do globally
For example, the recent agreement of T-Mobile with SpaceX is focused on deploying the second option, allowing SpaceX to utilize T-Mobile’s mid-band (3G) wireless spectrum and directly deliver satellite services to consumer devices in remote areas around the US. The planned service is expected to initially allow messaging (e.g. over iMessage or WhatsApp) – with speeds of 1 to 2 Mbps – to be followed by voice and data services.
The interesting part is that consumers can eventually get eSIM with wireless and satellite services at the same time. Alternatively, there will also be a new generation of eSIMs that can offer satellite internet in remote areas and can be added as a separate plan.
But one critical piece of the puzzle is still missing: compatible consumer devices.
Is iPhone 14 the first satellite compatible device?
Satellite internet provided through wireless bands cannot practically operate with existing mobile phones and will need a new compatible device. Why is that?
While typical 3G/LTE/5G wireless services are provided through fixed cellular towers, such service will be provided by moving LEO satellites when provided from space. So even if the mobile user is camping in one remote location, the mobile phone will be continuously switching from one LEO satellite to another as such satellites orbit the earth. This means the mobile device is continuously consuming power, and the battery will drain much faster than usual.
Accordingly, a new smartphone will be needed to seamlessly offer satellite internet in remote areas while preserving the phone’s battery life. The first such phone might be the upcoming iPhone 14!
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