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The end of the dead zone is near

If you believe the information provided by cellphone operators, there are practically no more dead spots.

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The end of the dead zone is near

If you believe the information provided by cellphone operators, there are practically no more dead spots. According to Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone and Telefónica, coverage in Germany is almost 99 percent. Only: smartphone users have a completely different experience. If you move away from cities and roads, you often look in vain for a radio signal. Hikers, mountaineers and sailors are apparently a side note in the network operators' expansion plans. Not more.

But that should change in the future, Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom promise at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, ​​the world's largest mobile communications fair. In the future, according to the plans, satellites in space are to become telephone booths if the network on the ground fails. "We want to offer connectivity to everyone, anytime, anywhere," says Claudia Nemat, Head of Technology at Deutsche Telekom. "Connection alternatives such as satellite play a crucial role in complementing our terrestrial network to ensure continuity of service."

At the MWC, Telekom announced a cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA) to build such a hybrid network. Together with partners such as the satellite operator Intelsat, Telekom has already demonstrated the technical feasibility, enabling communication from a smartphone via platforms in the near-earth stratosphere to the satellite and back.

Near-earth platforms can be hovering high-altitude balloons, airships or motor gliders. In a test over Croatia, a speed of 200 megabits per second was achieved - more than most smartphone users can achieve in the normal mobile network today.

Last year, the mobile operator T-Mobile US, together with SpaceX, announced that normal smartphones will be able to send and receive messages via satellite in the future. A beta test is scheduled to start later this year when SpaceX has positioned the second generation of Starlink satellites in space. Initially, the service will focus on sending text messages from anywhere with a clear view of the sky. Over time, T-Mobile will work on using the new network for voice calls and data connections, says T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert. With this service, the satellites connect via frequencies that T-Mobile already uses in its network.

Start-ups are also taking part in the race for mobile phone reception from space. "We are building a system that is backward compatible with all five billion cell phones," said Tyghe Speidel, co-founder and chief technology officer of Lync Global. The company has three low-orbit satellites in space and says it is currently building the earth stations for them. The satellite constellation should now continue to grow rapidly.

AST SpaceMobile is on the move with similar plans. The start-up successfully tested its first BlueWalker 3 satellite in November, which was launched from SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket in September. "Everyone should have the right to access mobile broadband, regardless of where they live or work," said Abel Avellan, the company's chairman and CEO. At 64 square meters, the satellite has the largest antenna ever deployed in low Earth orbit. AST SpaceMobile's plans envisage 168 satellites, but global coverage has already been achieved with 110 celestial bodies.

AST SpaceMobile has already entered into cooperation agreements with several mobile operators, including AT

According to Vodafone, it expects strong demand for these services via satellite. We want to make the application as easy as possible. "Once a user moves beyond traditional ground coverage, their connection would automatically switch to the AST SpaceMobile satellite network and customers would continue to communicate, probably without even realizing the switch," says Gordon.

The preparatory work for satellite reception on the smartphone has long been done. The global body for telecommunications standards 3GPP has adopted the standard for satellite-based non-terrestrial 5G networks (5G NTN). Several companies have subsequently announced collaborations, including the French aerospace company Thales together with the Swedish network supplier Ericsson and the chip manufacturer Qualcomm.

Ericsson sees space as an opportunity to make mobile communications more resilient. "The space-based network could also be used as back-up support for terrestrial networks in the event of major network failures or disasters," the group said in a statement.

Systems that enable satellite reception with normal smartphones are still under construction, regular operation is not yet possible. However, some manufacturers have already made adjustments to their devices so that satellite communication is already possible today. This includes Apple. The group's iPhone 14 models are able to send emergency messages via satellite. "For a good feeling, even if you don't have a network," the company advertises on its website.

But the effort is still great. Users must be outdoors and follow the course of the satellite with their iPhone. An animation on the display helps them, but sending a message can sometimes take a few minutes. The service is initially free for users for two years. According to Apple, this will cost 450 million dollars, most of which goes to Globalstar, via whose satellites the communication runs.

At the MWC, the Bullitt Group is also showing several devices that can receive and send messages via satellite. The British manufacturer builds rugged smartphones for Motorola and Cat outdoor phones. The new devices should not only send emergency messages, they also get a messenger that users can use to chat with each other. Bullitt is working with the chip manufacturer MediaTek.

"Satellite technology for smartphones is the next big step in mobile communication," JC Hsu is convinced. The manager leads MediaTek's Wireless Communications business. The Bullitt Satellite Connect news service is scheduled to launch in March. Depending on the number of messages sent and received, users book packages for a monthly fee of between five and 30 euros. Bullitt licenses its technology so other smartphone manufacturers can build it into their devices.

This could be a tempting offer for smartphone manufacturers. In fact, they have largely perfected their devices and almost exhausted the technical possibilities. The displays are sharper than meets the eye, the number of cameras on the back can hardly be increased and the resolution has already reached the 200 megapixel mark, most recently with Samsung's top model, the Galaxy S23 Ultra.

A simple more only seems to attract new buyers to a limited extent. Almost every fourth smartphone user in Germany keeps their device for more than two years, as the digital association Bitkom recently determined in a survey. Two years ago it was not even one in ten users who had their device in operation for so long.

Mobile phone reception from space could arouse new desires here. The desire of users is likely to be much greater in other countries, for example where the networks are still significantly more patchy than in Germany. In countries like the US, Canada and Australia, for example, users are used to being out of range.

Nevertheless, Samsung has dispensed with satellite reception in its latest flagship smartphone. But that should be the last top device from the market leader that doesn't get along with satellites. "If the right timing, the infrastructure and the technology are ready, we would of course also actively consider introducing this function for Samsung Galaxy, for our mobile division," says Samsung Mobile CEO TM Roh.

The group is working on such a solution itself. Samsung has already developed a tiny modem that is capable of satellite communication, as the company published last week. In the future, it is to be built into the in-house chips called Exynos.

While Starlink, AST SpaceMobile, Lync and Apple use Globalstar to access satellites that move around the earth at a distance of just a few hundred kilometers, Bullitt uses its solution to transmit via so-called geostationary satellites that are positioned around 36,000 kilometers above the earth's surface and are rotate with the earth. Fewer satellites are needed for this, but they also have a lower capacity.

Satellite provider Viasat, which is currently in the process of taking over its competitor Inmarsat, is also showing interest in mobile communications via satellite. Viasat boss Mark Dankberg doesn't even want to rule out a hybrid system with near and far satellites that smartphones can access.

In any case, the number of smartphones capable of receiving mobile communications via satellite is likely to increase rapidly this year. In January, the semiconductor manufacturer Qualcomm presented the Snapdragon Satellite at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), a solution that smartphone manufacturers can build into their models in the second half of the year. Then the devices connect to the satellites of the provider Iridium, which are in low orbit. In contrast to Apple's SOS system, users should then also be able to chat with each other via the system. Qualcomm chips are in most 5G smartphones today.

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