Satellite connectivity on smartphones has become a topic of interest with the recent launch of iPhone 14, which boasts SOS messaging capabilities even without WiFi or cell service. This technological advancement has sparked curiosity about its underlying technology and its potential arrival in India.
Traditionally, cell phones relied on ground-based towers for connectivity, with signal strength determined by proximity. However, satellite phones communicate with satellites orbiting Earth, providing broader coverage, especially in remote areas where ground towers are absent. In the past, specialized hardware, including antennas, was necessary for satellite connectivity. But emerging technology is changing the game.
One such technology is the 5G Non-Terrestrial Network (5G NTN), which allows phones to access satellite data when they are out of range of land-based 5G towers. This revolutionary innovation enables seamless communication, including messaging, GPS, and voice/video calls, without the need for additional hardware.
Major smartphone brands showcased their strides in satellite connectivity at the Mobile World Congress in 2023. MediaTek presented its NR-NTN technology for two-way satellite messaging on Android phones, with a next-generation NR-NTN in the pipeline for enhanced data rates and broader applications. Qualcomm partnered with brands like Honour, Motorola, Nothing, Oppo, Vivo, and Xiaomi to enable satellite messaging on premium phones through its Snapdragon Satellite platform. Samsung also introduced an Exynos chipset with built-in satellite connectivity for smartphones and other devices.
Given India’s vast and challenging terrain, it has emerged as a key market for satellite technology. Reliance Jio launched JioSpaceFiber, India’s first satellite broadband service, promising high-speed internet and entertainment across the nation. Airtel, through its joint venture Airtel OneWeb with OneWeb, received regulatory approval to offer satellite services in India, with nationwide coverage expected to begin next month.
However, challenges still exist in the rollout of 5G technology and satellite connectivity in India. Issues such as spectrum allocation, data security, pricing competition, and regulatory hurdles require attention. Nevertheless, satellite-linked smartphones have the potential to digitally empower people in India, particularly in remote areas. India is striving to achieve comprehensive connectivity solutions while considering the nuances of its unique landscape and regulatory landscape.