FCC proposal would make it easier for smartphones to link to satellites

Satellite-to-phone service is only just getting started, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants to give a boost. 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 teaming with cellular providers could get FCC permission to operate on some licensed, flexible wireless spectrum normally reserved for ground-based service.

Operators would have to meet certain requirements. They’d have to use non-geostationary orbit satellites, and get leases from terrestrial spectrum owners in a given area. After that, though, they could provide outdoor service even in areas where cellphones are completely non-functional.

Few devices support satellite connections so far. Apple’s iPhone 14 family can use satellites to send emergency messages. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Satellite enables texting off the grid, but only for Android phones using Snapdragon systems-on-chip and the X70 modem. It won’t arrive until the second half of 2023, however. Carrier partnerships also won’t kick off in earnest until T-Mobile and SpaceX roll out their Starlink-based collaboration. Testing for that begins later this year, although it should work with both standard texting as well as some messaging apps.

The technology usually depends on line of sight to a satellite, and the limited bandwidth of existing solutions makes them impractical for significant data transfers. However, they can help you reach first responders during a hike or confirm your arrival at a camp site in the wilderness. Eventually, the hope is to use satellites for general data.

The FCC is looking for public input on how the satellite-to-cell rules would bolster access to 911 and Wireless Emergency Alerts. The agency is also exploring whether or not it can apply the framework to other purposes, regions and wireless bands. If the proposal moves ahead, though, carriers beyond T-Mobile may have a relatively easy time filling (some) gaps in their networks.

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