The satellite-to-phone race intensifies with voice calling and access across Canada

The prospect of contacting a satellite to text or contact emergency services may soon become an effortless reality as startups move from proof of concept to real product. Canadians on the Rogers network, which just signed an agreement with Lynk, will get direct satellite phone connections across the country; and not to be outdone, AST SpaceMobile claims to have also made the first satellite voice call using a regular cell phone.

Connecting a standard smartphone like last year’s Samsung or iPhone to a satellite would have seemed like a fantasy a few years ago when we all knew it was impossible. But now companies are scrambling to position themselves as it becomes clear that satellite services will be a compelling offer on any mobile plan or phone model for the next few years.

Lynk’s approach is to provide as universal an SMS service as possible to as much of the world as possible, in the hope that no one who needs help or is out of network for any other reason will have never have to deal with “no signal”. It has demonstrated texting from the middle of nowhere (actually the founder texted me) and can also cover an unexpected area with no signal – due to power failure or natural disaster – with crucial information like where to find shelter.

The company has struck deals around the world with various carriers and is now on the doorstep of the United States (which has a tough regulatory environment and well-established mobile players) with a do business with Canada’s largest provider, Rogers.

Although the idea is that everyone will be able to use it, each satellite cell station must still operate through a licensed operator. The Rogers deal doesn’t mean total exclusivity (eg you’re lost and need help, but you have another carrier), but it’s the carrier who pays Lynk and who will accept payment from customers at across Canada as a local partner. I asked for more details on this and will update if I hear back.

AST SpaceMobile brings a more comprehensive connectivity package to the table, which launched its first test satellite and for the first time demonstrated a direct satellite phone call using an unmodified consumer handset. I checked (this can be tricky) and the connection was a continuous two-way data exchange between the phone and the satellite, which relayed it to the terrestrial network:

Abel’s phone in Texas was connected directly to the satellite to send and receive two-way communications, without any other intermediary. He made the phone call by typing the number from the usual Samsung dialer app on the Galaxy S22, just like you would for any normal phone call. The other end of the phone call in Japan was received through the normal terrestrial communication network (a cell tower).

Demonstrating the capability is a huge step forward, as the engineering involved in connecting a regular phone to something in low Earth orbit is already difficult – maintaining that connection to the point where data can constantly flow between them is even more difficult. difficult. Scaling is another issue that AST SpaceMobile will face, but having proven its capability, that challenge probably seems less daunting now.

The company’s BW3 satellite is the prototype of a constellation that will provide “2G, 3G, 4G LTE, and 5G” coverage from space, which is great because I lose 5G just going down the block. Help me, AST SpaceMobile.

Of course, Apple has grabbed the headlines with its Emergency SOS service, which connects to the Iridium network but requires you to see your phone on a passing satellite in order to exchange a mostly pre-set set of messages. Useful if you are stuck in a canyon and i need a helicopter to pick you upbut not if you want to check the weather or tell your spouse that your backpacking trip is going well.

And then there’s T-Mobile and SpaceX, which plan to provide Starlink data connection to network customers. While no one can deny Starlink’s ability to deliver a signal from orbit, it has yet to demonstrate an orbital connection to an unmodified phone, which it is supposed to do this year.

Soon these services will move from experience to line item and we will be back to the days when texts cost a penny each. Still, it’s better than nothing, and it’s certainly what a lot of people have once they leave town to hike or go fishing. Hopefully the connection remains on-demand, though – no one needs to be spammed from orbit waiting for trout to bite in a secluded mountain lake. It’s not a future anyone wants.

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