Big Interview

Mobile’s future is out of this world

Jay.Omnispace-6-2 (1).jpg

Omnispace wants to supply satellite services to every modern cellphone, everywhere on the planet. Alan Burkitt-Gray talks to satellite veteran Jay Yass about when this will happen.

Satellite communications serving the phone in your pocket is finally emerging from the niche where it has lived for three decades, where it has previously only been available to yacht owners, oil & gas prospectors, and the military.

“We call them ‘non-terrestrial networks’,” says Jay Yass, chief corporate development officer of Omnispace, one of the companies making their way into the non-terrestrial network business.

“Omnispace has seen a gap in the market. That gap comes from the fact that, brilliant as today’s mobile business is, it doesn’t cover the oceans or even wide spaces of the world’s landmasses.”

If you’re old enough – like Yass, and myself – you will remember the mid-1990s when satellite companies were certain that they would soon connect people around the world via hand-held phones.

Yass is speaking to me over Microsoft Teams from the US. His T-shirt features the prism and spectrum from the cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which was released 50 years ago.

Satellite start-ups

Back in the 1990s, satellite companies were busy setting up specialist arms or were funding start-ups. The origin story of Iridium, the most famous of these, is that a Motorola executive who was holidaying on a Caribbean beach, well out of the range of mobile phones, wanted to call the office so conceived the idea of a low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite system, in which satellites were effectively orbiting cell towers.

Iridium was a near-complete failure, and only survived because the US government was a customer. New management, led by Matt Desch, was able to raise the financing needed to launch a replacement constellation of more powerful satellites. The last of these went into operation in 2019, although some spares are due to go into orbit this year.

The benefit of a non-terrestrial networks (NTN) is that they cover the entire planet by default, as satellites orbit the Earth. The satellites used to provide NTN services to remote regions of Australia or the US Mid-West, could also cover Indonesia and Brazil’s rainforests, the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, or the Arctic and Antarctic.

So why did the first iteration of Iridium, or ICO Global Communications, another early project, fail?

“GSM was one of the things that killed mobile satellite,” says Yass, who has been in the telecoms business for 40 years.

Thanks to a brilliant bit of foresight by the European taskforce set up by standards experts to create GSM (which stood for ‘Groupe Spéciale Mobile’), roaming was built into digital mobile services from the start. This helped take-up of standard cellular networks – what we’d now call ‘2G’ – move faster than many expected, while providers were able to serve remote locations, such as the Caribbean smaller islands.

This foresight was actually a direction from staff and officials at the European Commission and European Union, who wanted one mobile phone that worked everywhere. They did not want to carry different phones for France, Germany, Italy, the UK and so on, each with different numbers.

With GSM, you could buy a phone in Chicago, and be (almost) sure it would work when you were on the beaches of Cancún or the Cayman Islands. Although it would not work when you were on the seas between.

In the mountains

Omnispace’s vision is that modern satellite technology makes it possible to use a 5G phone within the range of a cell tower, and in the remotest areas, whether in the countryside, up a mountain or at sea.

This technology is already advancing at pace. Apple’s new iPhone 14 line allows users in the US, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland and the UK to make calls and send messages via satellite in emergencies. But 5G-via-satellite requires spectrum for it to be widely adopted. In February, Omnispace and Ligado Networks announced plans to combine their spectrum to provide direct-to-device NTN voice, text and data services.

The two companies said that combining their spectrums will provide mobile connectivity to “more than five billion mobile subscribers, in areas where terrestrial cellular coverage does not exist today”.

Omnispace has 60MHz of S-band (2-4GHz) satellite spectrum, while Ligado has 40MHz of L-band (1-2GHz) satellite spectrum that covers the US and Canada.

One of the characteristics of satellite phone ventures seems to be the rapidity of rebranding and reconstruction. Ligado started in 1988 as American Mobile Satellite, which became Motient, then Mobile Satellite Ventures, then SkyTerra, then LightSquared (which, working with Nokia, sought to provide wholesale satellite spectrum for mobile services in the rural US), before settling on Ligado in 2016 – six names in three decades.

Yass mentioned that Omnispace includes assets from ICO Global Communications, which he says was bought out of bankruptcy by Omnispace.

Today, Yass says “we believe we’re redefining what mobile communications is”. The NTN concept has moved from providing satellite connectivity directly to specially designed devices, to providing it directly to regular mobile phones. Yass says this market has also expanded “beyond the one percenters” who were the targets of satphones (which, he noted, was a “very profitable niche business”).

“What’s different with Omnispace is we’ve always had a hybrid vision. We’ve seen a hybrid architecture, marrying terrestrial infrastructure with satellite infrastructure,” says Yass.

He adds that ‘NTN’ includes high-altitude platform services (HAPS) – putting base stations on aircraft or balloons.

Hybrid services

Yass says Omnispace has “been focused on delivering hybrid services, for land, sea and maybe air”.

The company’s aim is to deliver voice and text services in a wholesale relationship with mobile operators.

“We can fill a gap, with the right partnership and the right economic model,” Yass says. “They see the advantage of Omnispace. We have a unique business model.”

Omnispace has begun to pursue this goal.

“We’ve started the next generation with two LEO satellites,” says Yass. Spark-1 and Spark-2 were launched in April and May, respectively, by SpaceX, to provide 5G services in the 2.1GHz S-band spectrum. They can also provide internet of things and two-way SMS services.

Says Yass that Omnispace is “aiming for 5G NTN services”, which will conform with standards set by 3GPP, the global mobile standards body, to go live in “2025-26, more or less”.

“We’re watching how the market is evolving. We’re not going headfirst into it,” Yass adds. “We’re coordinating with the chipset manufacturers and the device manufacturers.”

But Omnispace is not looking at broadband, though. “From my perspective, broadband is a bridge too far,” says Yass, noting the available spectrum and the budgets for links needed for broadband.

Yass refuses to say when Omnispace will add to the two satellites they have in orbit. But he will be speaking at International Telecoms Week in National Harbor, Maryland, this May, so you can ask him directly for updates.

But Omnispace will continue to take steps “to meet the requirements of the market”.

In February, Apple and Globalstar announced they are working together on two-way texting via satellite. “If we have two-way texting, there’s a sense that you have to have two-way voice,” says Yass. “That’s the roadmap. Functionality needs to keep pace with the art of the possible.”

But Yass will not be drawn on how many satellites this would require. “I can’t divulge that number, but we’ve done a number of studies,” he says when I ask. “It will be a phased approach. You have to have a rational plan.” He will only say that Omnispace is taking a “prudent” approach in developing its wholesale network.

Pressed again on when it might be in service and he gives the same well-practised answer. “I’d hope to say this year, but I’d prefer to say nothing in case we’re late by a month or so.”

In the meantime, Yass points to the number of satellite-capable phones that are arriving on the market from Google, Samsung and Apple.

“There’ll be new entrants, optimised for 5G, 6G and so on,” says Yass.

These will open new markets serving people who are currently outside coverage areas.

Yass, who started his telecoms career in AT&T’s long lines department, was 71 in January. But he is not finished with life yet – he says he wants “to continue with my synthesiser, composing electronic music” – and he is excited about the possibilities for telecoms, reeling off places such as India, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, which could now be served. “Africa, Latin America, South-East Asia: global connectivity. That’s what’s required. Every country with the same levels of service.”