Lynk files for FCC license to use ‘cell towers in space’

Lynk Global claims to have a plan to make smartphones more intelligent when they’re at their dumbest, and it involves partnerships with mobile network operators (MNOs) around the world.

Based in Falls Church, Virginia, Lynk Global announced Tuesday that it has filed for a commercial operator’s license with the FCC. If its plans are approved, Lynk expects to begin offering commercial service starting next year.

Here’s the crux. Lynk wants to let anyone with a cell phone stay connected, anywhere in the world, with their existing phone. In doing so, it’s answering the call for getting service to hard-to-reach rural areas. Initially, its plan is to strike a deal with one mobile operator in a given geography.

Of course, a lot of satellite systems are vying for the FCC’s blessing, and many of them are competing to serve the same areas in need of broadband. But Lynk says it’s different, in part because it’s not aiming to be a Wi-Fi hotspot in somebody’s home.

Lynk is using the FCC’s streamlined process for up to 10 small satellites and it points to previous applications in this realm where the process took 10-12 months, so Lynk can begin global service next year. Eventually, it expects to grow its constellation to 5,000 satellites. (It has plans to mitigate orbital debris, an increasing concern as more satellite constellations launch.)

The company started to work on several of its major breakthroughs more than three years ago, according to Lynk CEO Charles Miller, whose career includes decades in the space industry.

Most people would say you can’t connect a standard phone to a satellite, and “conventional wisdom is wrong,” on that score, he said. Part of the breakthrough comes in using lower bands, like UHF, rather than higher frequencies.

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Lynk also invented a unique sharing arrangement and its application with the FCC demonstrates how this is done with no harmful interference, he said. Simply put, they turn the satellite into a cell tower, and the satellite can figure out where the phone is located on the ground.

When a cell tower queries: “how far are you away, the satellite lies and says ‘I’m right next to you,’” he told Fierce. “The phone falls for it hook, line and sinker. They call them smartphones, but in this one case, it’s a dumb phone.” This can be done using common Android and iPhones popular in the U.S. or a 2G feature phone in Africa, he said.

Lynk has signed testing agreements with 27 mobile operators around the world, but it can’t work with all of them for its commercial launch, so it’s starting a “Flagship Carrier” program. Under that program, it’s going to pick one operator to work with initially in each country, including one in the U.S., limiting its first commercial services to, at most, a dozen mobile operators globally.

With mobile network operators, Lynk will serve as a roaming partner, of sorts. So far, it’s not naming any names, citing non-disclosure agreements.

“We’re like American Tower in space, and we will extend an MNO’s network everywhere and we’ll do a revenue share,” he said. “We’re not trying to compete with [international] roaming agreements, but wherever those roaming agreements don’t cover, we’ll fill in all the black spots.”  

Lynk designs its satellites internally. The company is funded into 2022, including its next three satellite launches, he said. “We’re in a very good position,” he added, with plans to launch its next satellite from Florida’s Cape Canaveral in June.