Virginia company connected cell phones directly to satellites

Enlarge / Lynk’s “Shannon” satellite was launched into space in June on SpaceX’s Transporter-2 flight.


A space start-up claims to have successfully demonstrated its ability to use ordinary unmodified mobile phones to connect to satellite internet services.

Virginia-based company Lynk sent its “Shannon” satellite into orbit three months ago as part of a carpool mission on a Falcon 9 rocket. After some initial testing, the company said “hundreds “Cell phones in the United States, United Kingdom and the Bahamas were able to connect to the satellite as it passed overhead, as if it were a virtual cell phone tower in the ‘space.

“Basically, our satellite looks like your cell phone like a standard cell tower,” said Charles Miller, co-founder and CEO of Lynk.

Satellite internet is all the rage in the space and telecommunications industry, with companies such as SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon, Telesat and many others launching or planning large constellations of satellites to provide high speed internet. But all of these services will require some sort of terminal, perhaps similar to a DirecTV satellite dish, to send and receive signals in low earth orbit.

The difference with Lynk, according to Miller, is that with his 1m × 1m satellite, there is no need for a terminal, or even software to download. The service is intended to serve remote areas where a customer’s mobile phone provider, such as T-Mobile or Verizon in the United States, does not have coverage. So, like when you travel to a foreign country and are asked if you want to use a local service with international roaming charges, a similar message appears when you leave the coverage area of ​​a mobile operator. Lynk thus shares the spectrum with the mobile network operator.

Technical challenges

In order for everything to work, Lynk had to resolve a number of technical issues, Miller said. The main one was to be able to send uplink signals from a mobile phone to a satellite through the “noise” of other phones. Another challenge was to compensate for the enormous amount of Doppler shift between the satellite and the mobile phone on the ground. Existing phones and mobile networks are configured to accommodate high-speed train speeds, but not orbital speeds. Lynk engineers had to design the technology to allow the satellite to perform this Doppler compensation in space so that the phone “sees” what appears to be a fixed tower.

Lynk starts off small. With a single satellite, coverage is only available for a few minutes per day, over several degrees of latitude. With 10 satellites next year at an altitude of about 500 km, Miller said, the goal is to have coverage for much of the planet every few hours. By 2023, with around 100 satellites, there would be coverage every 5 to 20 minutes. To build a continuous network in real time, it will take 1,500 satellites, he said.

“When people are shown nothing, or a satellite every 15 minutes, we’re better than nothing,” Miller said. “It’s technology that saves lives.”

With limited bandwidth, the service will initially offer text-only messages, focusing on the potential for rescuing users in the aftermath of a hurricane or lost on a mountaineering or sea expedition. there will be enough satellites to serve broadband internet, Miller said. The prices of the service will be set by the operator of the mobile network.

So far, the company has raised $ 20 million, but still has a large chunk of it in the bank. According to Lynk’s research, the average mobile phone used on Earth today is only connected to a terrestrial network about 85% of the time. Thus, up to 750 million people experience disconnection at any given time. This is the market Lynk intends to serve. So far, the company has concluded transport agreements with Aliv in the Bahamas and Telecel Centrafrique in the Central African Republic.

A competitor

Lynk isn’t the only company working to connect land phones directly to satellites. Texas-based company AST SpaceMobile launched a small test satellite called BlueWalker 1 in 2019, validating its satellite-to-cell architecture. The spacecraft was successful in dealing with communication delays from low earth orbit and the effects of Doppler in a satellite-to-ground cellular environment using the 4G-LTE protocol, the company said.

AST’s next prototype spacecraft, BlueWalker 3, is expected to launch aboard a SpaceX mission from Cape Canaveral, Fla., As early as March 2022. The spacecraft has an aperture of 64 square meters and is designed to communicate directly with mobile phones via standard 3GPP frequencies. .

The company has agreements and arrangements with mobile network operators that collectively cover around 1.5 billion mobile subscribers. Partners in this effort are the world’s leading wireless infrastructure companies, including Vodafone, Rakuten and American Tower.

However, AST has not yet obtained Federal Communications Commission clearance to enter the US market. Previously, NASA had raised concerns about the large size of the proposed satellites, with a hard body radius of 30 meters and a much larger array of antennas. The case remains in abeyance.

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