Lynk Global today, March 18, 2020, announced it successfully connected a satellite in low Earth orbit (LEO) to an unmodified standard mobile phone on the ground. The technical demonstration showed Lynk can send a text message from space to a mobile phone and was witnessed by independent third-party observers according to the company’s press release.
“This is a game changer for the billions of people who own a mobile phone, for the billions who do not have affordable connectivity, and for the mobile communications industry. Lynk makes the impossible possible. In the near future, you will stay connected everywhere. All the time,” said Charles Miller, Co-founder and CEO of Lynk.
Over the past year, Lynk has conducted developmental testing involving three separate payloads hosted onboard different Cygnus cargo spacecraft, with the Lynk payload bolted onto the outside hatch of Cygnus prior to departure from the International Space Station. Cygnus provided power, control and telemetry monitoring information for the hosted payloads, enabling the company to quickly and rapidly verify Lynk’s space-based radio access network (RAN) technology without having to build and launch a dedicated satellite.
The 2G GSM proof of concept trial Lynk is showcasing took place on February 24, 2020 in the Falkland Islands, away from prying eyes and enabling the company to safely perform tests without potentially interfering with terrestrial cellular networks. Unmodified Android phones equipped with Lynk SIM cards were used, but there were no boosters from the satellite to the phones involved.
Since the Falkland test, Lynk has conducted others around the globe. Apple iPhones have not been tested yet due to the iPhone’s closed/locked nature. Exactly how many tests and where has not been disclosed by the company, but Lynk worked/paid to extend the latest Cygnus flight beyond an expected couple of weeks to conduct the series of tests.
Terrestrial cellular standards were not designed to conduct communication between low-flying satellites and unmodified handsets. Demonstrating that satellites can communicate with off-the-shelf phones being sold today without hardware or software modifications opens what the company estimates is a $300 billion to $400 billion per year opportunity to provide services where it is cost-prohibitive to put cell towers.
Miller told Space IT Bridge he expects, with the appropriate regulatory approval, to be able to offer two commercial services by the end of the year. Relaying of text messaging outside of existing terrestrial coverage and the company’s Everyone Everywhere Emergency (E3) alerts are expected to be feasible. The E3 service, demonstrated during the February Falkland test, delivers alert messages to the most remote areas, providing disaster warnings for such as hurricanes, wildfires, and tsunamis.
Lynk’s demonstration also provides the ability to provide emergency responders with services during incidents when ground-based cellular networks are down. Previously, the company has said it will provide free text messaging to first responders and civilians in such life safety incidents.
The company’s fourth “cell tower in space,” named “Lynk the World” is currently onboard the International space station and will be a 9U free flying nanosatellite without propulsion capability deployed from a departing Cygnus cargo freighter this summer. Lynk the World will enable the company to expand its tests to additional countries and partners and is expected to have an on-orbit lifetime of about a year before reentering the atmosphere.
Lynk is funded by a diverse group of investors, including Steve Case’s Revolution fund and Blazar Ventures. The company has raised around $12 million dollars, with Miller saying there’s “big money on the sidelines” prepared to be released at the appropriate time.
After the 9U freeflyer demonstration, Lynk will move to first generation production satellites 12U in size. It plans to build between 24 to 32 satellites for its initial services, using SMS text messaging and E3 alerts as an initial bootstrap revenue source to build larger satellites and add more capabilities. The growth path for satellites includes higher performance antennas, more broadcast power, propulsion capabilities to allow satellites to dwell longer at lower altitude, and more channels for increased bandwidth and data speeds.
Lynk’s primary customers are mobile network operators around the globe and the company has 27 operators it is currently working with. While the majority of operators are outside of the U.S., Miller said there’s interest among all major U.S. carriers for Lynk service since they can’t put cell towers everywhere and that “politicians and regulars” get “pissed off” when they have no connectivity.