Space phones: why Apple, T-Mobile, Verizon are adding space comms

space phones

“ET phone home” has never been more relevant. We’re seeing a wave of phone calls to space, or at least space connectivity from relatively ordinary cell phones.

  • Apple added SOS
  • T-Mobile is working with Starlink
  • AT&T is working with AST SpaceMobile

Why? And where is this going?

To answer, we chat with a senior director from Ciena. It’s a networking giant that supports 85% of the world’s largest telcos, with customers like AT&T, Amazon, Google, Deutsche Telekom, Verizon, and the U.S. DoD. Formerly with Nortel, his name is Brian Lavallée.

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Full transcript: space phones … why Apple, T-Mobile, Verizon are adding space comms

John Koetsier: E. T. phoning home has never been more relevant. We’re seeing a wave of phone calls to space. Apple’s doing it with the S. O. S. feature. T Mobile is working with Starlink. AT&T is working with a company called A. S. T. Space Mobile. To chat about where that’s going, what’s happening, what’s going on, where it’s all headed.

We’re chatting with senior director solutions, verticals from Sienna. You may never have heard of them. I hadn’t either, but it’s a networking giant. They apparently support 85% of the world’s largest telcos. We’re talking customers like AT&T, Amazon, Google, Deutsche Telekom, Verizon, and the U S department of defense.

His name is Brian Lavallee, and he is on tech first right now. Hello and welcome to tech first. 

Brian Lavallee: Hi, thanks for having me.

John Koetsier: Excellent. Super happy to have you. Why are we seeing this wave of phone calls to space?

Brian Lavallee: Yeah a lot of that has to do with the people involved. So if you look at Starlink, for example, Elon Musk has a lot of personal brand equity.

So when he starts talking, people listen. And he’s been putting quite a few satellites up in space. They’ve been providing broadband service around the world. It’s doing quite well. They’ve been in the news. For well over a year. They’re even supplying connectivity to Ukraine in the middle of their crisis.

So I think that’s why you’re hearing a lot about it. It’s not new by any stretch. We’ve had satellites for decades and decades. We’ve had lower earth satellites since the 90s with Iridium. So we’ve had different types of satellite constellations in the world providing services for many decades, but the people involved and also more importantly, the technology and performance they’re providing with the latest constellation.

That’s why we’re hearing about it.

John Koetsier: And the size, right? I think he’s somewhere around 3, 000, 500 satellites, somewhere around there. I haven’t checked recently. There’s always another 20 or 30 or 40 going up. He has licenses for at least something in the 20,000 range and up to 40,000, which is an insane thought.

SpaceX owns, what is it? 70% of active satellites in orbit right now?

Brian Lavallee: Yeah, and that’s the challenge with this LEO or low earth satellites is the satellites are placed much closer to earth. So they’re sitting at around 500, 550 kilometers from the surface of the planet. The older geo satellites are sitting upwards of 36, 000 kilometers away from earth.

So long distance to travel. This is why we get lower capacity and higher latency. But once you put them much closer to earth. The propagation distance is just hundreds of kilometers. We’re not talking tens of thousands of kilometers, but the coverage radius is much, much smaller. And that’s why you need many more of them to have ubiquitous coverage around the world.


John Koetsier: We’re having, with what Apple did, Apple said, Hey, we’re going to put an SOS feature. It’s basically sending a text message to space help. I’m here, come get me something like that. But we’re seeing companies doing significantly more. T-Mobile is talking, maybe phone calls are going on.

AT&T has actually done some phone calls with AST space mobile. Where do you think this fits in? The consolation, sorry for the word, of connectivity.

Brian Lavallee: Yeah, I guess it’s good to go back down memory lane a little bit. If you look back in the 90s, Iridium, when they launched, most of it was concerning or related to a competition.

Will satellite phones replace cell phones? And that led to a lot of challenges between companies and very little cooperation and teamwork. All that’s changed. So you’re starting to see a lot of collaboration and partnership agreements between satellite operators, terrestrial network operators so I think it’s complimentary going forward.

And I think that’s going to change everything. Now you’re going to have seamless connectivity. So if you are in cell coverage, you will use cell phone towers like we typically do. But once you go off coverage, then you’ll start bouncing off a satellite. And then we’re talking about roaming off of the satellite networks and vice versa.

I think that’s the biggest change to all these announcements. They’re going to compete less with each other and compliment each other. And I think that’s the biggest change going forward. And that’s probably going to dictate the success of this as well.

John Koetsier: It’s pretty crazy when you think about it though, right?

Because your standard mobile phone. You’re talking, Hey, I’m connecting to a cell tower. That’s a couple of clicks away. It’s not that far. It’s a low power radio, low power. Let’s put that in quote marks. But if you’re talking to a satellite, even if it’s low earth orbit, it’s 300 kilometers up.

And maybe it’s not directly over me. Maybe it’s at an angle as well. So we’re talking, sending a signal orders of magnitude farther. Our phones can’t really be designed for that, can they?

Brian Lavallee: As they’re designed to date, not for broadband as we accepted right streaming videos and so on. We do that, like you mentioned, to a cell tower, some radio site that has an antenna and a radio sitting on a tower on the side of a building downtown.

The distances are relatively short. So the actual signal power from your cell phone to that radio site is optimized and vice versa. But like you mentioned, if we’re going hundreds of kilometers, there’s 2 ways to do this. You can either greatly increase the transmission power of your smartphone, that’ll kill battery life, right?

Which most people will not want. Or you can make the satellite far more receptive to the faint signals that would come out of a typical cell phone, and that seems to be the direction that we’re going towards. That’s why these newer satellites, the generation 2 of SpaceX, for example, they’re Starlink these generation 2, they’re much, much bigger, right?

Much larger antenna arrays. And that will allow us to allow these satellites to pick up signals from smartphones. And then you have to operate at the same frequency back. And that’s another challenge is you have mobile spectrum. You have satellite spectrum. They don’t really align. 

So now we have to decide whose spectrum do we use, right?

If you go into the much higher gigahertz spectrum that satellite operators use, these spectrums are already being talked about for 5G, but one of the reasons they haven’t been deployed broadly. Is they don’t propagate as far as traditional snowfall frequencies, but they don’t, they also don’t go through obstacles very well, like buildings and trees and stuff like that.

So the challenge is what frequency bands do we use? If I had to guess I would say that using the mobile frequency bands is probably a better choice because there’s billions of smartphones being deployed yearly sorry, there’s billions of smartphones being deployed. And these are refreshed on a regular cadence.

I think it’s much more. feasible to use the mobile frequency bands, but that comes with it. You have to redesign that satellite as well.

John Koetsier: That satellite size thing is a real thing. I did a story on AST SpaceMobile and what they did with AT&T. And that satellite is literally 40 times the size of a Starlink satellite.

It is ginormous. In my story, there’s a big picture of it, and you’ve got like 40 people around one edge of it. The astronomers and the dark sky lovers, I count myself as one of those, have been pretty upset about this talk of putting literally tens of thousands of potentially competing networks of satellites all over us.

It’s already causing a problem for imaging stars and other things like that. Now, Starlink has done some good things. They’ve coated their satellites with a darker non reflective paint. So at least maybe you don’t notice it as much. But these big ones, they’re going to occlude more stars and more.

Heavenly bodies. If we want to put it that way. Bit of an interesting challenge going forward. I guess nobody cares that much

Brian Lavallee: about astronomy. Yeah, you actually brought up another point where the satellite networks are in the news without that anti reflective coating or darker coating. People were reporting all kinds of UFOs flying through the skies and they were right.

It was like a sequence of little dots moving across the sky. And that was These Leo satellites. But you’re absolutely right. Size is a big concern. So if we look at the geo satellite sitting at 36, 000 kilometers, these were huge. They were absolutely huge. And as you got closer to earth, the satellites got smaller, but then you needed many more of them because the coverage range was that much smaller.

And now that we’re talking about perhaps using the frequency bands of the mobile, now those smaller Leo satellites are actually getting bigger again. So how big will they get? We’ll see, but. If you’re fortunate enough to have your own company that launches things into space, that’s a huge advantage for you because you’re launching your own satellites, but you’re right.

These larger satellites will cause other issues in terms of costs and production challenges and also maintenance as well.

John Koetsier: It is, generally speaking, a good thing to have more connectivity, however obviously, cellular networks go where there’s population centers, and where people get into trouble and are in danger is sometimes where there isn’t any connectivity, and the ocean.

70% of the planet’s surface, right? So having more connectivity is going to save lives, probably also cause more people to risk their lives because they’re still in contact. That’s generally a good thing. So you see this as complimentary. You see this as, hey, when I’m on a cellular network, here I am. And when I’m outside of the range there, I can still connect, maybe texting, maybe voice.

Brian Lavallee: I do. I actually think that it makes far more sense to be complimentary. And this question, satellite versus mobile. I also get the satellites versus undersea cables. You mentioned the ocean, 70%, 99% of the traffic between continents has carried over submarine cables. So the logical question came up, will satellite networks compete with fiber optic networks sitting on the ocean seabeds and the answer is no.

They’re highly complimentary. The same thing I think applies for different reasons. The sovereign cables is more about capacity, dwarfing what a satellite constellation can carry. And on the terrestrial side of the network, I think it’s cost economics and coverage. So I think it’s, they’re highly complimentary.

Now that’s not to say that if you live in. I don’t know the suburbs of New York that you don’t want a Starlink dish, right? If you want to play with that, you can very well go out and do that. But if you want to have high capacity fiber optics to your home that’s the best medium we have today.

There is no substitute for fiber optics right now. Mobile networks 5G gives you multiple gigabits per second to your cell phone, which is great with the added advantage of mobility. But if you’re talking about fixed broadband to the home or business fiber optics is where you want to go. So I see them very much as complimentary.

And even if you have a wireless connectivity connection, and you have the fiber optic connection, a satellite connection as well, could be your ultimate backup. So something goes wrong. You have backup connectivity.

John Koetsier: That is a really interesting point. When you brought up the undersea cables, that’s immediately what I thought of, because we have seen in this era of changing alliances and geopolitics, I’m talking Russia, talking China, talking other nations.

We have seen some undersea cables cut. Under potentially suspicious circumstances, let’s maybe not say cut. We know that this service has been interrupted and the circumstances have been somewhat suspicious. And that can really isolate an entire continent in some cases. And these subsea cables carry massives.

Massive amounts of data, which you can’t replace with satellite, but at least you can have a backup system for some things …

Brian Lavallee: I assume. Exactly. So if you look at if we’re talking about undersea cable faults, look at what happened with Tonga. This was an island in the South Pacific, and it was only connected with a single submarine cable, and when they had That undersea volcano occurred, you had landslides and everything we see on land, but undersea and it broke the cable and they were offline for weeks until they could repair that cable.

Now, if they had a backup of LEO constellation type of connectivity, much lower latency, higher capacity than previous generations of satellite. That’s a great backup to have if we’re looking at North America, Europe, and some of the more developed countries. There’s a lot of submarine cables that land on the east and west shores of the continent.

So we have multiple cable cuts every year. It’s typically 70, 75% is humans, fishing, trawlers, anchors, and so on. But we don’t see them because the traffic is automatically switched to another cable. They repair it. They switch it back. But if you’re on an island nation and you only have one submarine cable, satellite networks could be a godsend for you in an emergency situation.

John Koetsier: Super interesting. Yeah, I have a phone right now that can connect with satellites is the iPhone 15 pro 14 pro. I don’t live in the future! Sometimes it feels that way, but it would be interesting in the future to be able to just go in the middle of nowhere, which I love to do and have connectivity and have that feeling of safety.

Thanks so much for chatting about this. I don’t know. I guess maybe let’s ask you for a, to end it off with a bit of a prediction. What kind of timeframe are you thinking it’ll be till a significant percentage, maybe 50% of people who have a mobile phone that’s fairly modern can actually connect with a satellite.

Brian Lavallee: Yeah, predict the future. That’s a tough one. Like you mentioned the iPhone 14 pro and you also have a model from Huawei as well. I think it’s the 550 series or something like that. They can also do similar things with their satellite partnerships that they have. I think they went down the right route having a SOS and voice communications in an emergency. That’s what you want to see right off the bat. But to have broadband connectivity on par with a cell phone network, I don’t think it’ll ever per user get to the point where we see a fiber optic network to the home, but just on a 5G type of network, I think is many years away for a variety of reasons.

One, people have to get the phones, so unless you’re sitting on a phone that’s capable of talking to a satellite network. It doesn’t matter what they put in the sky. You have to have that phone. So there’s that whole refresh cycle. But then there’s the technical challenge that we talked about.

Larger satellites, bigger satellite arrays. It’s very complicated. And we have to remember these newer LEO satellites, they’re zooming across the sky. They’re not stationary, right? Geostationary. They’re zipping across the sky. And you’re talking to them at a very high speed, and then you’re bouncing between satellites.

So that’s a very significant technical challenge. Even Elon Musk said it would be a very big challenge. If you tell an engineer they can’t do it, they’ll find a way to do it. That’s been my experience when they can do it. I think it’s years away, many years away to have broadband connectivity on par with a 5G network.

That’s the technical side, but then there’s a whole regulatory side as well. Everybody’s competing for spectrum, both in the mobile and the satellite space, from private institutions, carriers, even the military. I think that has to be worked out. The whole regulation, direct satellite to cell phone is not really something that’s in the regulatory body today.

There’s a lot of challenges on the business and the technology side. So if I had to predict I would say it’s quite a few years away to have any service on par with today.

John Koetsier: I think you’re right on that. It is interesting right now, just to see that the locus of competition for traditionally terrestrial networks and telcos.

Is now starting to include low earth orbit, starting to include space, starting to think about that as a place where they need to have a solution. They need to be working with handset manufacturers and they need to be able to support their customers. Super interesting. Thank you so much, Brian.

Brian Lavallee: Yeah, no problem.
Thanks for having me. Always a pleasure.

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