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Independent analyst firm Opensignal has analyzed more than 100 global markets to take a closer look at the problem of no cellular signal faced by mobile users, which satellite connectivity seeks to solve.

The analysis comes at a good time as Apple adds emergency SoS using satellites to the iPhone 14 lineup initially available in the US and Canada. The feature may also be available on cellular smartwatches.

Huawei also introduced a similar feature in the Mate 50.

As of today, Qualcomm, Ericsson and Thales are beginning to test satellite connectivity as part of their development work for 5G version 17.

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Rugged phone maker Bullitt will launch a smartphone with satellite connectivity in early 2023. Apple and Globalstar are rumored to be working together.

Elon Musk’s Starlink has announced a deal with T-Mobile US also for a 2023 launch 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 internal control over hardware and software than many of its competitors.

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

This is essential considering other necessary tasks such as creating and testing new dedicated hardware, adding software support, obtaining regulatory approval by country.

Service providers will likely aim to target users in wealthier markets first, as these users will be most able to afford additional tariff charges.

Across the G7 group of major economies, Opensignal data shows stark differences in the proportion of time users spend without cell service, ranging from 2.14% in France to just 0.51% in Japan.

While these percentages may seem low, there are times when this will be more valuable to users than others, for example, the ability to send an off-network emergency message during a car breakdown or due to a hiking accident.

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

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

1. Smartphones may have trouble seeing all fast moving low earth satellites. Existing home broadband satellite data services experience disruptions when the satellite dish does not have a clear view of the sky and therefore cannot see the constellation in full orbit. 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, short message service will be able to sneak in when the mobile device can see a satellite, obviating the need for continuous service.

2. Battery power may limit more demanding services. Unlike stationary satellite dishes, smartphones have relatively small batteries which are required 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 drain of battery. Short messaging will minimize additional consumption on the smartphone.

3. Messaging reduces data costs. Short messages – whether iMessage, Signal, WhatsApp or Line – use modest amounts of data. This means that the mobile service provider can manage data costs while roaming. This is similar to the texting pattern of the late 90s.

Although nationally, the time users spend without a mobile signal can be relatively low, there are large regional differences that provide opportunities for satellite service.

In the United States, the national percentage of no signal 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 appreciate the peace of mind of satellite connectivity as well as residents of these 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 spent by users without service is higher, indicating that there are clear global opportunities.

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

In these markets, GDP per capita tends to be lower and therefore the business opportunity may need to involve government organizations, to tie into meaningful connectivity programs, rather than the private sector alone.

Companies should also evaluate other ways to close coverage gaps, Opensignal suggested.

In rural areas, regulators and operators would do well to look to national roaming agreements to fill quick-win service gaps. In other words, when a cellular operator has one service, but currently does not have others, should regulators step in to enforce national roaming?

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

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

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