Cell-to-satellite market is still evolving with no clear winners

The cellular-to-satellite market, which started off hot in late 2022, is currently in a bit of a transition. In November Qualcomm announced it was ending its partnership with Iridium Communications in which the two companies planned to deliver direct-to-device (D2D) service to Android smartphones. Qualcomm said its decision was due to smartphone makers preferring standards-based solutions instead of the proprietary solution that it had developed with Iridium.

But analysts say Qualcomm’s departure from this area shouldn’t be viewed as a failure for the cell-to-sat market, but instead be chalked up to a business model problem because the partnership did not provide a role for the mobile network operator.

Despite Qualcomm’s exit from the market, analyst firm NSR, an Analysys Mason company, remains bullish on the satellite D2D area, projecting that it will generate a $137 billion cumulative service revenue opportunity between 2022 and 2032.

Mobile operator role is key

In a research note, Lluc Palerm Serra with NSR, said that the biggest challenge to success in this area if aligning the interests of all the actors in the satellite D2D value chain. “The model proposed by Qualcomm did not consider a role for the mobile network operators (MNOs),” Serra said. “MNOs’ relationships with end users mean that MNOs must play a major role in order for the model to scale,” he added.

Of course, some D2D players do have mobile operator agreements including AST SpaceMobile, which is working with 40 operators including AT&T; Lynk Global, which says it has multiple mobile operator agreements; and SpaceX’s Starlink, which is collaborating with T-Mobile in the U.S. and a handful of other operators globally.

NSR’s Serra said that because these players have MNO partnerships, they may be able to ramp up their services faster and take advantage of backward-compatibility with existing phones.

Lynk has developed a technology that makes it possible to connect any cellular device operating today to its satellite network because it can fool the cellular device into thinking that the satellite is a nearby tower. The company received a boost in mid-December when special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) Slam Corp., led by former pro baseball player Alex Rodriguez, announced plans to merge with the company and form a group that they expected to be valued at $800 million.

Lynk has successfully launched three commercial satellites and has started operating in four countries. The company is preparing to launch two more small satellites early this year and needs more funding if it wants to ultimately have 5,000 LEO satellites so it can provide continuous services around the world.

However, just two weeks after announcing its deal with Slam Corp., SpaceNews reported that  Slam has to give $176 million back to investors that are opting to redeem shares rather than have a potential stake in Lynk. That means that Slam now has fewer funds to fuel Lynk’s expansion.

Meanwhile, AST SpaceMobile, which is similar to Lynk, because it can connect directly to existing smartphones and deliver its service through wholesale agreements with mobile network operators, is planning to launch its first five satellites in the first quarter. The company said that it also plans to launch its commercial service this year, according to Abel Avellan, CEO of AST SpaceMobile.

And finally, SpaceX, which has partnered with T-Mobile, Rogers and a few other operators  to deliver D2D service, is planning to launch its first six Starlink satellites with direct-to-cell capabilities in early January.