You have been misled. The new frontier of mobile connectivity isn’t 5G or even 6G, it’s satellite. Last year, Apple was unveiling its SOS lineup with the iPhone 14 satellite phones. This year, Qualcomm laid the groundwork at CES 2023 for a lineup of satellite-based Android phones capable of two-way messaging in 2023 and beyond.
Satellite communication capabilities are not easy to prove, especially on mobile test platform hardware and with convenient software and many steps of consumer availability. Even when you’re just trying to run a simulated test, you’ll want to take extraordinary measures to prove that your satellite systems work. Alternatively, you can set the mood.
Qualcomm’s big idea for showing the Snapdragon Satellite to an excited group of tech journalists was to take us far, far away from the bustling, neon-filled Las Vegas Strip.
After riding in a party bus (complete with stripper poles), we drove nearly 20 miles off the strip, passing gambling towers and old Vegas casinos like the Golden Nugget. We drove until the landscape was barren and full of scrub. With power lines resembling a collection of metal erectors standing like sentinels in the distance (and reminding me of that scene from Seven), we all piled out of the bus on crusty desert soil. This will be the testing ground for the Snapdragon Satellite.
There may still be large swaths of land not covered by cellular signals, but when I glanced at my phone, I found that even though I couldn’t detect a cell tower, it still had a strong 5G network.
Although Qualcomm and, by extension, Android phones will lag behind the consumer satellite communications team, Qualcomm is coming from a different direction. Sure, the system as described to me will, with the help of a Garmin partner, provide emergency satellite communications and rescue services, but the Snapdragon Satellite will start with something more consumers will probably want and use: satellite-based two-way text messaging.
Based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 SoC, the Snapdragon X70 5G Modem-RF system will use the 1616Hz and 1620Hz bands to communicate with an extensive network of low Earth orbit (LEO) Iridium satellites.
Unlike Apple’s satellite SOS service, which currently only covers North America, Canada, and Europe, Qualcomm and Iridium are “pole-to-pole” coverage. Iridium’s network is larger than Apple’s Global Star network and Irisium execs told me it’s also newer. Iridium also claimed that while they have LEO, the Globalstar satellites are operating in junk medium Earth orbit (MEO).
Instead of using a system when you’re in trouble and without Wi-Fi or cellular connectivity, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Satellite is a system that can be used anywhere, anytime.
Want a text message from a cruise ship? Go for it. Want to send an emoji while hiking in the woods? This satellite is for you.
Satellite systems have less bandwidth than cellular based systems. As a result, the Snapdragon Satellite is not a complete multimedia messaging system. There is a strict limit of 140 bytes per message. The dedicated app keeps track of that for you.
As for how you can use it, you start with the Snapdragon Satellite app and use your existing phone number to identify you. However, you can only send a satellite message to someone in your contact list. As explained to us, a Qualcomm representative selected a contact through the dedicated app and was then instructed to point the phone toward the nearest orbiting satellite of LEO Iridium.
Like Apple’s satellite SOS solution, the Snapdragon Satellite doesn’t need a special external antenna to work. Qualcomm told us a different antenna might improve performance, but a mid-band antenna would work just fine. The key is that the antenna is built into the top of the phone so it’s easy to point at a nearby satellite.
Since we were in the middle of nowhere with nothing but stretches of dry land stretching as far as the eye could see (there was a mountain range in the distance), a test phone with an integrated satellite antenna quickly got a clear, unobstructed view of the satellite. Sending messages can take up to 10 seconds, but in this case, it was instant.
Qualcomm execs had another Android phone that received the message as if it came over a normal cellular network – the system is already using your existing phone numbers.
You can also use the same Snapdragon Satellite system in case of an emergency. In this case, your help text may be routed through Garmin’s existing call center systems. However, Qualcomm hasn’t shown emergency use, telling us it doesn’t want to fake an emergency. I was a little surprised because Apple figured out how to do exactly that with its system when I tested it a couple of months ago.
While it’s fair to assume that future Samsung and other Android phones may have a Snapdragon Satellite, Qualcomm didn’t mention a single partner. They told us that the bands were too new for any partner to have supporting phones in the near future. This somewhat excludes Samsung’s expected Galaxy S23 lineup, which is expected to launch early next month, from the satellite communications mix. Yes, the phones will have the requisite Snapdragon flagship CPUs and even appropriate modems, but they likely won’t have the new band components or supporting software.
In addition, Android manufacturers have to figure out how they want to implement Qualcomm’s satellite text messaging software. Will they integrate it themselves? Will they turn to carrier partners for support? It is unlikely because carriers move very slowly. Are they looking to third party companies like WhatsApp? possible.
While Qualcomm wouldn’t expect a satellite communications integrator to charge that much for emergency services, sending messages via satellite will probably cost you as much. How much is anyone’s guess.
The point is, while I saw the Qualcomm Snapdragon Satellite in action in the Las Vegas desert, it won’t be until later this year that we see premium Android phones that support it. Perhaps the next Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 5 or Z Flip 5 will take the honors.
After the demo, we shouted back to the bus and I thought about the previous bus passengers, wondering if they cared about technology or satellite texting. Maybe not, but maybe too.
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