Lynk signs satellite-to-phone deals with first two wireless carriers
Cell-tower-in-space connectivity provider Lynk this week announced commercial agreements with its first two mobile network operators (MNOs)—Aliv in the Bahamas and Telecel Centrafique in the Central African Republic—to let subscribers stay connected anywhere using a standard, unmodified mobile phone.
Lynk CEO Charles Miller said that Lynk plans to begin providing services to Aliv and Telecel Centrafique in July 2022, allowing users outside the range of the carriers’ terrestrial networks to use their unmodified cell phones to connect directly with Lynk’s low-earth-orbit (LEO) to communicate. These two carriers are the first to sign deals with Lynk, but they won’t be the last, he said.
“This is the beginning of many more to come,” Miller said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “The reason we’re announcing these carriers is because they could make decisions very quickly. The bigger carriers, they have like three or four different departments, and everybody has to sign off on any deal.
“We’re in the middle of negotiating contract with many other MNOs, including larger MNOs and U.S. MNOs. There are more coming, so there’s a lot of excitement … Our first couple of deals are with smaller, faster MNOs, but we’ve got over 100 MNOs in our pipeline.”
Lynk officials are confident that satellite-to-phone technology, first demonstrated last year, will be ready for commercial service next year, but the ability to provide services is dependent on securing necessary regulatory approvals from the FCC and the countries where carrier partners operate, Miller said.
Lynk has filed its application with the FCC to secure a global operator’s license to operate a projected constellation of more than 5,100 LEO satellites—a process that Lynk officials believe “is going very well, but we’re not through it,” Miller said. After securing the license from the FCC, Lynk can work with carrier partners to secure “landing rights” that would allow Lynk to utilize the carrier’s spectrum within that country to provide services.
“We go in with the carrier to their regulator—their version of the FCC—and they say, ‘We want to give [Lynk] a sub-license to our spectrum,’ because the MNO already has the spectrum,” Miller said. “They [carrier officials] say, ‘We want to have permission to transmit from cell towers in space—not just cell towers on the ground—over the spectrum you’ve already given us.’ Those are called landing rights in the satellite industry.”
Financial terms of the deals with Aliv and Telecel Centrafique are not being disclosed, but Miller described them as revenue-sharing agreements. In addition, Aliv and Telecel Centrafique are the first two MNOs in Lynk’s Flagship program, which guarantees exclusivity to a carrier for a period of time, according to Miller.
“We’ve agreed that, at least at the beginning, they’re the only MNO we’re going to work with in that country,” he said. “For signing on quickly, they get an advantage in their country with our service.
“Some of these MNOs want longer exclusivity for business reasons. We’re entertaining strategic offers, so we can come to a deal.”
Lynk plans to sign only 12 carriers into its Flagship program, Miller said.
To date, Lynk has launched only a handful of the more than 5,000 satellites it plans to have in its final constellation, but it plans to provide global coverage when services are launched next year, Miller said. Initial service will be limited only to text, with full broadband offerings expected to be available in 2025, he said.
Aliv CTO Stephen Curran said that the Lynk satellite-to-phone model is particularly helpful for islands, providing easy-to-use communications in many maritime scenarios on a daily basis, as well as being critical in the aftermath of a hurricane or earthquake.
“I’ve worked on hurricanes and earthquakes in scenarios where the entire network has been destroyed by the storm,” Curran said in a video on the Lynk website. “So, there are no towers, there is no electricity, and it’s very difficult to get on the islands to restore services sometimes.
“With the airborne system by satellite, you can get the service there very, very quickly in the aftermath of a storm. If the terrestrial network is destroyed or substantially destroyed, the Lynk system or similar system can restore coverage quite quickly, because it’s overhead.”
Other satellite offerings also provide communications, but they often are not practical options for entities that lack proper equipment and technical expertise, Curran said. With the Lynk satellite-to-phone model, people can communicate without a terrestrial network using the phone they already have.
“The great thing about the technology is the fact that it’s using the cell phone, which is in everybody’s pocket,” Curran said in the video. “You’re not relying on a terminal that needs a smart antenna, that needs a special power supply, or it needs to be pointed at the sky in a certain direction. It’s in everybody’s pocket.”
Even a text-only service can be life-saving in the most dire of connectivity situations, as Curran learned while aiding in the recovery after an earthquake in Haiti.
“After the disaster in Port-au-Prince, the place was completely trashed, and we were running around like crazy, putting up cells on wheels,” Curran said in the video. “We managed to put one cell site back on air again. Five days after the disaster, one guy managed to get his cell phone working and texted his sister to say, ‘I’m buried under this building.’ The guy’s alive today because someone put a COW up two streets over from him.”
“Even the fact that you got a message from somebody means something after a storm. Like it’s chaos. Nothing works. With a system like Lynk, where it’s all up in the sky, it’s not affected by what’s happening on the ground—that’s all taken care of.”