Lynk files for FCC license to operate “Cell Towers in Space” next year

Today Lynk Global announced it has filed for a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license to operate satellite “cell towers in space.”  The company expects to start commercial service around the world starting next year once it gains FCC approval, enabling unmodified, off-the-shelf cell phones to stay connected anywhere in the world.  Both the U.S. Air Force and the U.K. space agency have signed contracts to support development of the Lynk system.

“Lynk is introducing a brand-new, never-been-done-before service—satellite-direct-to-standard-phones,” said CEO Charles Miller. “As an American company, we are fortunate to have the FCC, whose process is trusted by officials around the world, to license our satellites. We believe that being good corporate citizens means at every point in the process you must be rigorous—whether it is eliminating harmful interference or minimizing orbital debris. Because using cellular frequencies from space has never been done before, we believe that being licensed by the FCC will help regulators worldwide embrace this groundbreaking technology.”

What type and level global services will be available through the Lynk Smallsat Network has yet to be officially stated by the company but will be centered around low data rate services initially, such as text messaging and cellular IoT.  

“Lynk can provide any ‘cellular based IoT’ flavor that MNOs want to provide, everywhere,” Miller said. “This is a breakthrough cellular IoT service which has significant implications.” 

One example Miller cited was the incorporation of a cellular chip into recent model and new vehicles, providing connectivity for services such as GM’s OnStar 911 airbag deployment notification, LoJack-style theft prevention, and maintenance alerts. “With Lynk, you get OnStar and Lojack everywhere,” Miller stated. “No change to the car, your existing car just stays connected everywhere.”

This is the first commercial license application for Lynk.  The company has flown a series of pathfinder experiments, first hosted onboard Northup Grumman Cygnus cargo freighters and graduating to a cubesat-sized free flying spacecraft. A second free flying spacecraft named Shannon is scheduled to go into orbit onboard the SpaceX Transporter-2 rideshare mission expected to take place in late June 2021.  Last year, Lynk demonstrated the ability to establish a satellite connection with a stock mobile phone on the ground and conducted a number of demonstrations with carriers and several governmental agencies.

According to the company’s FCC filings, the company is developing a cellular-based satellite communications network that will provide global GSM and LTE cellular services, operating in most cellular frequencies used worldwide in the 617-917 MHz band. The Lynk Smallsat System will extend network coverage to areas where network operators can’t profitably operate using typical cell tower technologies.

Using the FCC’s streamlined smallsat licensing process, Lynk plans to build and launch ten satellites, the first step in a larger constellation that could grow to several thousand satellites for continuous global service in 2025 and topping at 5,000 satellites to deliver “broadband speed to your phone,” according to the company’s May 25, 2021 press release.

Launch of the first satellite could take place as early as December of this year if all goes well, with the rest of the satellites launched throughout 2021. The satellite themselves will be a bit different from the typical cubesat, coming in 0.15 meter x 1 meter x 1 meter and 0.15 x 1.5 meter x 1.5 in size.  Current plans will have the first four satellites of the 1 meter square size to operate in sun synchronous orbit (SSO) while the remaining six are the larger 1.5 meter square size and operate in mid-inclination orbits, but Lynk reserves the option to use all small, all large, or mix and match, depending on satellite readiness to launch and availability of rides to orbit.  All satellites include water jet propulsion to move out of the way of space debris and conduct a controlled deorbit at the end of life.

Lynk says it has signed dozens of cellular network operator testing agreements, so much so it has had to limit initial commercial operations to a dozen “Flagship Carriers” globally.  “There is a huge amount of interest in Lynk’s service,” Miller said. “We actually have too many testing partners at this time.” 

Miller says via email that Lynk has raised over $20 million, sufficient funding to launch up to three more satellites this year. Lynk’s FCC filing says the company plans to launch its first production satellite in December 2021, so the company has at least one or two more free flying technology demonstration satellites planned as well, including the Shannon satellite anticipated to launch in late June.

Lynk’s press release emphasized the ability of its system to provide global service for the 5.2 billion existing cell phone users as well as enabling connectivity for another 2.5 billion people currently without phones.  The company also said the service will provide an “instantaneous backup emergency communications layer everywhere on Earth, delivering emergency alerts and 911-based services even when terrestrial networks are disrupted by natural disasters and man-made events.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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