SpaceX and T-Mobile may have grabbed the headlines their brilliant pre-announcement of Starlink connectivity last month and Apple last week, but Lynk has gone all out and could very well steal their lunch with a satellite-to-phone connection that already works – with any device available. Actually they do just got FCC approval for itmeaning it’s just a matter of choosing a mobile network partner to bring it to market here in the States.
Link demonstrates a direct satellite-to-phone (and vice versa) emergency service. late last year with its test orbital cell tower. Far from orbital broadband or a legacy satellite band that forces you to point your phone at an invisible point in the sky, Lynk will provide periodic (think every half hour or so) two-way SMS service over regular cellular bands that just happen to reach orbit. It is intended for emergencies, logging from the far side and disseminating information in places where networks are down, such as disaster areas.
It’s not easy to send a text to or from an antenna moving several thousand miles per hour, and CEO Charles Miller confirmed that it took them several years to do it. So when the big companies say they’re working on it, he doesn’t feel too much heat.
“That’s the benefit of inventing the technology five years ago: there are a bunch of hard things that nobody else has done yet. I’m not saying they can’t, they just haven’t yet,” he told me. “We confirmed this 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.”
Of course, you can have a thousand of them and it won’t matter unless you have regulatory approval and partners in the mobile space. This is the next step for Lynk, and although they have 15 contracts covering 36 countries around the world and are preparing for a commercial launch, the United States FCC is the “gold standard” for this kind of testing and validation.
It’s not just because they have the best facilities—the FCC’s approval process is also the de facto battleground where companies try to one-up each other. For example, Hughes, which operates a number of communications satellites, objected to Lynk’s application on various grounds (which the FCC rejected), and Amazon’s Kuiper asked Lynk to share operational data with everyone else (not provided). One meaningful request, to which he partially agreed, came from the National Organization of Radio Astronomers, which asked for various operating restrictions, such as non-polluting radio quiet zones.
There is more than this one step with the FCC. Today’s order approves Lynk’s satellite services to operate as a whole, having shown that they will not interfere with other services, radio bands, etc. Separate approval will be needed when Lynk finds a partner to go to market with – but the more difficult and drawn-out issue of safety and disruption is now answered.
And how will this go-to-market piece work? Lynk expects to offer commercial services elsewhere in the world, and Miller said he expects to convert testing licenses acquired in other countries to commercial, a process in which mobile providers should take the lead. As for working in the US, it’s the same.
But who will Lynk’s partner be, and what will the resulting service look like? Miller said that whatever the commercial product looks like, Lynk will make its services available in emergencies to anyone — so you won’t be stuck in a snowstorm just because you’re on the wrong network. It can also be used to blanket an area with signal-independent warnings or information, such as communicating the GPS coordinates of natural disaster victims to nearby shelters.
Think of it as a roaming fee — if AT&T has coverage but you don’t have their network, they don’t stop you from calling 911 or even loading TikTok, you just have to pay later. And a 50 cent toll (or whatever) is the last thing on anyone’s mind when they sprain their ankle 20 miles from civilization.
Miller declined to comment on the competition, since there really isn’t any yet — it’s all kind of theoretical. T-Mobile and Starlink service is still a twinkle in their eye; AST SpaceMobile prepares for first launch; Skylo uses geosynchronous satellites that work with specific devices; Apple is also only for the latest phones and the messaging capability is limited. Sure, there are dedicated satellite messaging devices you can buy, but nothing compares to what you already have.
There’s no US launch date set, and indeed Lynk will need to launch the rest of its 10-satellite constellation before it can offer the level of service it described to the FCC — but these days you can get a ride to 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 on it for this ski season just yet.