Qualcomm, Iridium to offer satellite messaging for Android devices

Qualcomm and Iridium are partnering to bring cellular-to-satellite connectivity to Android smartphones. Called Snapdragon Satellite, the service will first be available to devices that have Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 mobile platform and are powered by the Snapdragon 5G modem. The service will deliver two-way messaging using Iridium’s L-band spectrum for both the uplink and downlink. The first Android devices featuring Snapdragon Satellite are expected to be available in the second half of the year.

Qualcomm and Iridium’s announcement comes just weeks after Apple released the iPhone 14 that comes with an emergency SOS satellite messaging service using Globalstar’s satellite network. That service, called Emergency SOS via Satellite, is offered for free for two years to Apple iPhone users. Apple invested $450 million to enable this service.

Matt Desch, CEO of Iridium, told reporters that the company first started working with Qualcomm on this solution in mid-2020 and the platform is now ready to be incorporated into smartphones and other devices. “[Iridium] already connects 2 million devices today so we can handle millions more,” Desch said. “We just had to beef up our provisioning systems.”

Iridium’s announcement with Qualcomm isn’t a huge surprise as there has been a lot of speculation that Iridium would enter the smartphone-to-satellite fray. Space News reported earlier this week that Iridium had a cellular-to-satellite deal with Samsung after it revealed in a regulatory filing that it is due to be paid royalties, development and network usage fees from an unspecified new technology.

Francesco Grilli, VP of product management at Qualcomm, said that Qualcomm was able to upgrade the Snapdragon platform to connect to Iridium’s network without requiring any hardware changes to the baseband or the transceiver. “There are changes in the RF front-end,” Grilli said. “Everything else can be handled by our own modem.”

There are several Android smartphone devices that are already in development that will have Snapdragon Satellite service, Grilli said but he declined to reveal which manufacturers are involved in making these devices.  But he said that the first smartphones with this capability will be sold in North American and Western Europe. But those devices will have the cellular-to-satellite service capability in any country that currently has Iridium’s satellite coverage.

Desch said that he doesn’t expect Android devices with Snapdragon Satellite to replace existing devices that currently use Iridium’s satellite constellation for connectivity.  For example, Garmin’s InReach line of devices uses Iridium’s network to send text messages. Instead, Desch said that he views this service as an extension of Iridium’s existing business. And he’s bullish on the fact that Snapdragon’s platform will make it possible to add satellite connectivity to many other types of devices, such as automobiles or personal computers.

Making money
Desch refrained from providing specifics on how he believes the Snapdragon Satellite service will be priced and packaged. He said that those decisions are being made by the device makers but added that Iridium will make money from a per-device fee and also a service fee. He added that he expects there will be a variety of different business models from OEMs and operators. For example, an operator could bundle the Android device with Snapdragon Satellite service with a rate plan and create value for the consumer.

Both T-Mobile and AT&T have already revealed relationships with satellite providers and both have plans to offer cellular-to-satellite connectivity. In a splashy announcement last August T-Mobile and SpaceX’s Starlink said that they had formed a technical partnership to connect T-Mobile subscribers that are outside cellular coverage using Starlink’s satellites. However, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk admitted that Starlink has to construct special antennas for the satellites to pick up the signals from cell phones. Plus, there are likely regulatory hurdles that must be overcome before any service can be launched.

Likewise, AT&T CEO John Stankey recently told Bloomberg that the company plans to launch a consumer application that will use satellite connectivity.  Last May AST SpaceMobile was granted an experimental license to test its BlueWalker 3 satellite and it appeared to be using spectrum licenses owned by AT&T.