SpaceX and T-Mobile may have made headlines last month about Starlink connectivity and Apple last week with their lightning early announcement, but Link is in the works and could very well steal their lunch with a phone connection from satellite. It already works – with any device out there. Of course, they got FCC approval for it, which means it’s just a matter of choosing a mobile network partner to bring it to market here in the States.
Link demonstrated a direct satellite-to-phone (and back) emergency connectivity service with its test orbital cell tower late last year. Far from an orbital broadband connection or a legacy satellite band, you point your phone at an invisible dot in the sky and the link intermittently (think every half hour or so) provides two-way SMS service over normal cellular bands. join the orbit. It is intended for emergency situations, check-ins from the back country and disseminating information in places where networks are down, such as disaster areas.
Sending a text to or from an antenna moving several thousand miles per hour isn’t easy, and CEO Charles Miller confirmed that it took a few years to make it happen. So when big companies say they’re working on it, he doesn’t feel much heat.
“That’s the benefit of inventing tech five years ago: there are so many difficult things that no one has done yet. I’m not saying they can’t, they still can’t,” he told me. “We validated it and patented it in 2017. We did it from space yesterday and the day before – we have the world’s only active cell tower in space.”
However, you can have a thousand of them and it doesn’t matter unless you have regulatory approval and partners in the mobile space. This is the next step for Link, and although they have 15 contracts in 36 countries worldwide and are preparing for commercial launch, the United States FCC is the “gold standard” for this type of testing and validation.
Not just because they have the best facilities — the FCC approval process is a de facto battleground where companies try to one-up each other. For example, Hughes, which operates several communications satellites, objected to Link’s application on various grounds (which the FCC suppressed), and Amazon’s Kuiper requested Link to share operational data with everyone (not granted). A meaningful request from the National Radio Astronomers Organization was partially granted, which sought various restrictions on operation without polluting radio quiet zones.
There are more steps than this with the FCC. Today’s order approves normal operation of Link’s satellite services that have shown they do not interfere with other services, radio bands, etc. Link needs special approval when finding a partner to go to market – but the more complex and drawn-out question of security and interference has already been answered.
And how does that go-to-market piece work? Link hopes to offer commercial services elsewhere in the world, and Miller said he hopes to commercialize testing licenses obtained in other countries, with mobile providers taking the lead in the process. As for operating in the US, it’s the same thing.
But who is the link’s partner, and what will the resulting service look like? Regardless of the commercial product, Miller says Link makes its services available to anyone for emergencies — so you’re not caught in a blizzard because you’re on the wrong network. It can also be used to blanket an area with warnings or information regardless of signal, such as telling natural disaster victims the GPS coordinates of nearby shelters.
Think of it like a roaming charge — if AT&T has coverage but you don’t have their network, they can’t stop you from calling 911 or loading TikTok, something you’ll have to do later. And a 50-cent fee (or whatever it might be) is the last thing anyone thinks about when they sprain their ankle 20 miles from civilization.
Miller declined to comment on the competition because there really isn’t any yet — it’s all kind of theoretical. T-Mobile and Starlink’s service is still a twinkle in their eye; AST SpaceMobile is preparing for its first launch; Skylo uses geosynchronous satellites that work with specific instruments; Even Apple is only for its latest phones and the messaging capability is limited. Of course there are special satellite messaging devices that you can buy, but nothing is better than what you already have.
No launch date has been set for availability in the US, and Link will have to launch the rest of its 10-satellite constellation before it can provide the level of service described to the FCC — but these days you can fly into 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 it out this ski season just yet.