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Makeover Looms For Smartphones After Telstra Musk Starlink Deal

Telstra’s move to partner with Elon Musk’s Starlink for satellite calls and broadband internet raises the question of whether today’s smartphones can connect to low earth orbit satellites and make this possible.

Deals between telcos and LEO satellite providers will eventually let regular consumers text, and make audio and video calls to a satellite from their everyday phone where there is no $G or 5G connectivity. Unlike today’s satellite phones, communications will be fast with low delay (latency).

You could be travelling 500km west of Uluru in central Australia, or be a hiker in a dense southwest Tasmanian forest with a broken leg calling for emergency support. An everyday call routed via a LEO satellite will get you out of trouble.

But what does this mean for the design of smartphones going forward? Connecting to a LEO satellite for on-the-ground broadband isn’t an issue where the size and weight of equipment isn’t so crucial, but for smartphones, size and weight are everything. You don’t want the equivalent of a bulky satellite phone with a thick, large antenna.

Two major changes are needed to today’s smartphones to make these satellite calls possible in next generation smartphones. One is to the chipset, the other is to the antenna.

US giant Qualcomm and Taiwan’s MediaTek are two major chipset suppliers to Android smartphones that are on the case. MediaTek, which commands 53 percent of 4G chipsets in Android phones, according to global research firm OMDIA, is already producing chipsets for Android phones that make them capable of LEO satellite communications.

British rugged phone producer Bullitt and Motorola demonstrated their use at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in March and MediaTek itself showed off an advanced version of its chipset capable of video calls and coming to Android phones in future.

Market leader Qualcomm in January introduced its Snapdragon Satellite two-way messaging solution that targets premium Android smartphones, in a partnership with satellite communications firm Iridium. Qualcomm said it intended to collaborate with Garmin to support emergency messaging.

Qualcomm said emergency messaging (the first step to fully fledged satellite calling) will be launched in the second half of 2023. The Qualcomm system is powered by Snapdragon 5G Modem-RF systems.

Qualcomm is not only eyeing the smartphone market, it is planning to make LEO satellite connectivity available to laptops, tablets, vehicles and IoT devices. There are implications for local telcos if this service includes direct connections to Leo satellites while bypassing local Australian-based providers.

There are other chipset players in the market. In February Samsung unveiled a 5G “non-terrestrial network” (NTN) modem for direct connections to a satellite. The modem is destined to be part of the company’s bespoke Exynos chips that will power future Samsung flagship devices.

There is also Apple which kicked off this move towards direct smartphone-satellite communications with its pioneering albeit basic “Emergency SOS” service on iPhone 14. Apple, which produces its own mobile chipsets, is bound to be developing its next generation communications which goes beyond the current limited geostationary satellite communications.

These new, tiny chipsets should make little difference to the design, size and weight of satellite capable smartphones. However the challenge is antennas. The aim is to get around the thick bulky antennas used on current generation satellite phones.

Apple itself achieved this in iPhone 14 through a complex antenna redesign, although users had to point their iPhone in the direction of an available geostationary satellite. The antenna has limitations.

The Apple experience nevertheless shows that smartphone designers are not far from achieving calling to LEO satellites without big amounts of extra bulk.

British rugged phone maker Bullitt’s CAT S75 which offers two-way texting to geostationary satellites avoids a bulky external antenna, and while it’s a large phone with a 6.58-inch display, doesn’t appear to be particularly thick and packs all this new technology in a 171x80x11.9 millimetre frame weighing just 268 grams.

Motorola meanwhile has shown off its Defy 2 bluetooth connector device which makes satellite texting possible when connected to an iPhone or Android device. At 70x50x11mm, it’s the size of a credit card and fits into your pocket.

MediaTek told ChannelNews that the physical characteristics and overall footprint of the devices and antennae using MediaTek’s chips is dependent on the OEM.

It says its NTN solution can be added to any form of 5G and 4G phone, from entry level all the way to flagships.

If you can’t wait for next generation smartphones, there is still the option of bulkier satellite phones that you can use for texting and calls, such as the IsatPhone 2.1 available on Amazon, the solar charged Iridium Go, the Inmarsat IsatPhone 2.1 and Garmin inReach Mini 2.

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