You’d be forgiven for thinking that the humble text message is just about as mundane as telecoms tech gets right now, but startup Lynk is aiming to correct that assumption. The company has become the first to directly send a text message from an orbiting satellite to a standard cellphone back on Earth, and it turns out that’s a big deal – and a huge challenge.
Modern telecommunication does, of course, rely heavily on satellites. They’re involved in bridging vast distances back on Earth, bouncing data between different points in orbit before returning it to the ground. However what doesn’t usually happen is a satellite communicating directly to a phone.
Instead there’s infrastructure in-between, something Lynk says it has figured out a way to bypass completely. Its “cell-tower-in-space” approach bypasses the need for cell towers on Earth, rollout of which is expensive and time-consuming. That makes affordable coverage, particularly in areas of low-income or that are very remote, impractical.
Satellite phones have existed to bridge that coverage gap for some time now, though they’re usually exponentially more expensive – both for hardware and service – than regular phones. What Lynk is proposing is a network of satellites that could directly communicate, from orbit, with a regular off-the-shelf cellphone. It’s based on technology that can extend the range of a cellular signal to more than 300 miles, sufficient to reach from the ground to a constellation of satellites above.
Currently, Lynk has four such satellites in orbit, one having launched roughly every six months. That’s obviously a long way from ensuring coverage everywhere on the globe, which the company claims is its eventual goal, but it’s enough to demonstrate the system can work in practice. Back in February, a text message was successfully sent from a Lynk satellite down to a regular cellphone on the ground.
Lynk’s strategy isn’t to replace every cell tower on the ground with a satellite. Instead, it aims to partner with operators and MVNOs, filling in gaps in their coverage with its satellite service. That way, your phone would be connected to a regular cell tower when one is within range, but could seamlessly switch to the constellation overhead when that’s no longer the case.
The company – previously known as Ubiquitilink – says it has nearly thirty mobile network operators interested and signed up to test the service, which would basically work as a roaming partner for their subscribers. When that might actually launch commercially, of course, is another matter. There’s a long way to go from a proof-of-technology to an operational satellite network, but as SpaceX’s Starlink has demonstrated, lowering the costs involved in deploying satellites into low orbit has paved the way for a whole host of new telecoms businesses that might once have been financially unfeasible.