Satellite-to-phone service is just getting started, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants to push it forward. The regulator is proposing rules that would make it easier for phone carriers and satellite operators to provide coverage in remote and underserved areas. Under the plan, satellite companies that partner with cell phone providers could obtain permission from the FCC to operate on licensed flexible wireless spectrum normally reserved for terrestrial service.
Operators would have to meet certain requirements. They would have to use non-geostationary orbit satellites and obtain leases from terrestrial spectrum owners in a given area. However, after that, they could provide outdoor service even in areas where cell phones don’t work at all.
Few devices support satellite connections so far. Apple’s iPhone 14 family can use satellites to send emergency messages. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Satellite allows off-grid texting, but only for Android phones using Snapdragon system-on-chips and the X70 modem. It won’t arrive until the second half of 2023, though. Carrier partnerships won’t start in earnest either until T-Mobile and SpaceX roll out their Starlink-based collaboration. Testing for that starts later this year, though it should work with both standard text messages and some messaging apps.
The technology generally relies on line of sight from a satellite, and the limited bandwidth of existing solutions makes them impractical for significant data transfers. However, they can help you communicate with first responders during a hike or confirm your arrival at a desert camp. Eventually, the hope is to use satellites for general data.
The FCC is seeking public comment on how the satellite-to-cellular rules would strengthen access to 911 and wireless emergency alerts. The agency is also exploring whether or not it can apply the framework to other wireless purposes, regions, and bands. However, if the proposal goes ahead, carriers beyond T-Mobile will find it relatively easy to fill (some) gaps in their networks.