SpaceX and T-Mobile may have made headlines last month with their flashy advance announcement about Starlink connectivity and Apple last week, but Lynk has done the job and may very well steal their lunch with a satellite-to-phone connection that already works — with every device out there. In fact they are just got FCC approval for itmeaning it’s just a matter of selecting a mobile network partner to market it here in the United States.
Lynk demonstrated a direct satellite-to-phone (and back) emergency link service late last year with its test orbital cell tower. Far from an orbital broadband connection or an old satellite band that lets you point your phone at an invisible dot in the sky, Lynk would provide intermittent (think every half hour or so) two-way texting service over regular cellular bands that happen to reach on orbit. It is intended for emergencies, check-ins from the hinterland and dissemination of information in places where networks do not work, such as disaster areas.
It’s not easy to send a text to or from an antenna moving thousands of miles per hour, and CEO Charles Miller confirmed it took a few years to get it done. So when big companies say they’re working on it, he doesn’t feel too much heat.
“That’s the advantage of inventing the technology five years ago: there are a lot of difficult things that no one else has done. I’m not saying they can’t, just that they haven’t yet,” he told me. “We validated and patented this in 2017. We did it from space yesterday and the day before — we have the world’s only active cell tower in space.”
Sure, you can have a thousand and it doesn’t matter unless you have regulatory approval and partners in the mobile space. That’s the next step for Lynk, and while they have 15 contracts in 36 countries around the world and are preparing for commercial launch, the US FCC is the “gold standard” for this type of testing and validation.
It’s not just because they have the best facilities — the FCC approval process is also the actual battleground where companies try to influence each other. For example, Hughes, which operates a number of communications satellites, objected to Lynk’s application on several grounds (which the FCC filed), and Amazon’s Kuiper requested Lynk to share operational data with everyone else (ungranted). A meaningful request, which was partially granted, came from the National Radio Astronomers Organization, which asked for various operating limits, such as not polluting radio-quiet zones.
There is more than this one step with the FCC. Today’s order clears Lynk’s satellite services to operate in general after it has been shown that they will not interfere with other services, radio bands, and so on. Separate approval is needed when Lynk finds a partner to go to market with, but the more difficult and drawn-out question of security and interference has already been answered.
And how will that go-to-market piece work? Lynk expects to offer commercial services elsewhere in the world, and Miller said he expects to convert the trial licenses acquired in other countries into commercial ones, a process that mobile carriers should lead the way. As for operating in the US, it’s the same.
But who will be Lynk’s partner and what will the service look like? Miller has said that whatever the commercial product looks like, Lynk will make its services available to everyone for emergencies — so you don’t get stuck in a blizzard just because you’re on the wrong network. It can also be used to cover an area with warnings or information regardless of the signal, such as telling victims of a natural disaster GPS coordinates of nearby shelters.
Think of it as roaming charges – if AT&T has coverage but you don’t have their network, they won’t stop you from calling 911 or even charging TikTok, you just have to pay for it later. And a 50 cent fee (or whatever it may be) is the last thing anyone will think of when they sprain their ankle 20 miles from civilization.
Miller declined to comment on the competition because it’s not really there yet – it’s all rather theoretical. The service from T-Mobile and Starlink is still a twinkle in their eyes; AST SpaceMobile Gears Up for Its First Launch; Skylo uses geosynchronous satellites that work with specific devices; Apple’s is also only for the latest phones and messaging options are limited. Sure, there are special satellite messages you can buy, but nothing beats the ones you already have.
No launch date has been set for availability in the US, and Lynk will indeed have to launch the rest of its 10 satellite constellation before it can provide the level of service it’s described to the FCC – but these days you can get a ride to space every week. or two if you have the money. So expect to hear more about this potentially life-saving service in the coming months, but don’t count on it for this ski season just yet.