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Several Operators Eye Market

Having Multiple Satellite/Smartphone Providers Is Years Out, Says Globalstar Chairman

NEW YORK -- Multiple deployments of satellite/smartphone communications face numerous regulatory and technological implementation hurdles, with many operators likely years away from being able to go to market, Globalstar Chairman Jay Monroe told us Wednesday. He and other executives discussed the company's partnership with Apple unveiled in September (see 2209070016) as part of an investor conference at the New York Stock Exchange. Monroe said Apple did "significant ... magic" to make the Globalstar-enabled iPhone 14 SOS messaging service, which went live Tuesday. It's not clear who would perform that for other satcom operators' announced plans, he said.

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Alongside T-Mobile’s partnership with SpaceX and satellite-enabled mobile service startups Lynk and AST SpaceMobile (see 2208260038), a variety of other satellite operators are showing interest in similar service. In a call with analysts last week, Viasat CEO Mark Dankberg called satellite/smartphone communications “really, really attractive” as a satellite application “that plays to our strength.” Iridium CEO Matt Desch told analysts last month the company’s smartphone connectivity plans “will become clearer in due time.”

Dankberg also sees multiple satellite/ smartphone communications offerings being some time off. It's “a very challenging connectivity technical problem,” he said. He said the number of system upgrades that any operator would need to be able to scale up to serve the expected numbers of simultaneous users means any such foray into satellite/smartphone communications is “two to three years out at least.”

EchoStar CEO Hamid Akhavan told analysts earlier this month it will take two to three years before a significant number of handsets are commercially available that can use its S-band spectrum. He also downplayed other satellite operator announcements. “None of those are based on 5G,” he said, saying viable direct-to-handset service “has to bring capabilities similar to what people use today on a normal basis.” Emergency messaging or limited service over a small geography isn’t viable, he said.

Other satellite operators interested in satellite/smartphone communications face big regulatory and technology challenges, Monroe said at the investor conference. While other tech platforms under development "might do this job, what's available today is Globalstar and Apple. It's the right spectrum, it's the right architecture." SpaceX's Starlink "someday ... could work," but not on its current frequencies, and it also faces regulatory hurdles, Monroe said. He called SpaceX/T-Mobile plans "aspirational."

Globalstar built or upgraded gateways around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic in anticipation of the Apple service, Monroe said at the conference. “People just didn’t notice, which was helpful to us,” he said. He said Globalstar is contractually obligated to expand its mobile satellite service (MSS) licenses into other countries, with bonuses tied to those. He said Globalstar’s U.S. spectrum is its most-valuable asset today, but its international spectrum could eclipse that.

Globalstar has terrestrial S-band rights in the U.S., Canada, Brazil and several African nations, and company officials said four sign-offs by other national regulatory bodies are imminent. FCC approval came in 2016 (see 1612230060). Presenters Wednesday discussed using the terrestrial spectrum for applications ranging from autonomous mining to 5G micro-networks. Monroe said the pandemic stymied some regulatory approval efforts because of the challenge in traveling to other nations. He said the Apple deal opens the door to getting terrestrial S-band rights in China -- a door Globalstar can't open on its own.

Asked about SpaceX's pending FCC application to provide MSS in the 1.6 and 2.4 GHz-band, where Globalstar has had exclusive use (see 2209070003), Monroe said his company would "fight it all the way." "We are not too worried about that one," he said. He said Apple chose Globalstar in part because of its spectrum position, with midband spectrum that can be used in handsets. He said SpaceX, to replicate that, needs a global band.

Vice President-Strategy and Communications Kyle Pickens said Globalstar’s C-band spectrum could be a long-term opportunity. Monroe said spectrum hasn’t been a focus because the company was more occupied with the Apple wholesale agreement.

Globalstar's two-way IoT module is under development, with an expected launch in 2023, said CEO Dave Kagan. Two-way IoT allows both tracking and remote control for assets, he said. Even minus the capacity dedicated to the Apple emergency messaging, Globalstar has capacity for a 50-fold increase in IoT customers, he said. The one-way market -- where Globalstar today has about 50% market share -- is expected to double over the next five years, while the two-way market will more than quadruple, said Dave Haight, IoT vice president.

The company is trying to raise $500 million by year’s end to build and launch 17 additional satellites, with those to go up in 2025, Chief Financial Officer Rebecca Clary said. The aim is to extend the life of its current constellation Monroe said.

Asked about plans filed with the ITU for a 3,800-satellite constellation, Monroe called the filing “a placeholder.” “I don’t know that I would read too much into that,” he said. “Maybe something opportunistic will happen.”