Better cell service on the horizon, as companies report new milestones in offering satellite-to-smartphone service

(Official SpaceX Photos / CC0)

Telecommunications companies working to bring cell and data service to areas with poor connectivity by satellite have reached several milestones over the past week, raising hopes of better cell service for areas lacking coverage from existing cell towers, including many farm fields and pastures.

While traditional satellite phones require specialized devices and expensive high-altitude satellites, the race is on to improve connectivity for regular smartphones, with several major players betting on networks of newer low earth orbit (LEO) satellites.

In the U.S., Elon Musk’s SpaceX received government approval on Thursday to test its direct-to-cellular phone service via its constellation of Starlink LEO satellites.

Working with T-Mobile, SpaceX received permission from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission for a six-month trial involving 2,000 regular consumer smartphones and 840 satellites in 13 geographies.

The FCC said it had “good cause to approve this request because it is in the public interest,” noting the technology could “bring connectivity in areas where terrestrial mobile networks are absent or have been impacted by natural disasters.”

Here in Canada, Rogers and Lynk Global, which also operates a fleet of low earth orbit satellites, announced what they described as “Canada’s first successful satellite-to-mobile phone call” on Thursday.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey speaks with a search and rescue crew member using Lynk’s low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites and Rogers’ wireless spectrum last week. (source: Rogers)

The call was made between Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey and a member of the province’s search and rescue association at Heart’s Content, where the world’s first transatlantic telegraph cable — from Ireland — was brought ashore in 1866. Both participants used retail Samsung S22 smartphones (see photo.)

“We’re bringing coverage to Canada’s most remote areas to improve public safety and to connect communities that aren’t connected today,” said Rogers CEO Tony Staffieri. “We’re proud to work with Lynk to bring Canadians the very latest global technology that will give them access to 911 and wireless services.”

Rogers says it plans to launch the satellite-to-mobile phone technology in 2024, starting with SMS texting, mass notifications, and machine-to-machine AI applications, before expanding to offer voice and data services.

In addition to the partnership with Lynk, Rogers announced a deal SpaceX in April 2023, with plans to offer direct-to-cell service in Canada via Starlink satellites, similar to the arrangement with T-Mobile in the U.S. According to Starlink’s website, it plans to begin offering text/SMS service in 2024, with voice and data service in 2025.

TELUS is also moving ahead on offering connectivity via satellites, working together with satellite company TerreStar Solutions and network provider Skylo. The three companies said they successfully demonstrated Canada’s first two-way communication between smartphones and satellites in a trial in October, using TerreStar’s existing geostationary satellite.

“This collaboration with TerreStar and Skylo lays the foundation for a world where everyone has access to potentially life-saving connectivity, and businesses and institutions can operate more sustainably and efficiently in remote regions,” noted TELUS president and CEO Darren Entwistle.

That world Entwistle speaks of, where everyone has access to service for emergencies and to help businesses operate more efficiently, includes many people and places involved in farming.

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