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9 January 2020

Apple reported to be developing direct-to-handset satellite technology

Satellite is gaining an ever bigger profile in the broader ‘5G’ landscape. A standard for 5G-over-satellite will be included in the 3GPP’s Release 17, due in 2021. The satellite industry gained more spectrum concessions from terrestrial at last year’s World Radio Conference than it had in the 2015 event, and there are some hopeful signs of closer cooperation between the two industries, despite continuing squabbles over C-band and millimeter wave airwaves.

And now Apple is reported to be investing in a futuristic technology that would transmit data directly from satellites to handsets, bypassing terrestrial networks and operators. According to Bloomberg sources, CEO Tim Cook is taking a personal interest in a project that is led by aerospace engineers Michael Trela and John Fenwick – who formerly headed Google’s satellite and spacecraft activities – with about 12 Apple employees working on it. The team is responsible to Dan Riccio, Apple’s SVP of hardware engineering, who runs iPhone hardware development. Apple also recently hired Ashley Moore Williams of Aerospace Corps.

This is not Apple’s only bluesky project which may never be commercialized, and is unlikely to be making a big hole in its huge $16bn R&D budget. Nor is Apple the only digital giant experimenting with satellite communications as a way to complement or even bypass radio networks. Facebook, Amazon, Google, SpaceX and OneWeb are just some of the Silicon Valley names with developments in this market, alongside the established players like Iridium.

It seems unlikely that Apple would want to develop its own satellite constellation, since it does not have the same motivation to bring Internet access to ‘the next billion’ as the web giants like Facebook. But it could use existing satellites to support new ways to transmit data to handsets, or to other devices such as vehicle navigation systems.

Satellite analyst Tim Farrar, principal at TMF Associates, told FierceWireless that other companies are working on direct-to-handset communications from low earth orbit (LEO) satellites, which are themselves revolutionizing the economics of this market because they are far smaller and cheaper to deploy and run. He gave the example of Lynk (formerly UbiquitiLink), whose project “could effectively create a global iMessage platform” if it could access spectrum. In September, Lynk said it had conducted two initial “cell tower in space” tests using prototypes from the International Space Station, and plans to launch 24-36 LEO satellites in 2021, and “several thousand” by 2023 to support global connectivity for standard handsets.