Cellular and satellite convergence

There are signs of accelerating progress in cellular and satellite convergence. A recent report from Scotiabank lead with an attention grabbing headline, “Mobile Carriers Poised to Create $1.0T in Equity in the Direct-to-Cell Revolution”.

Last year, I wrote about the FCC taking steps to explore “innovative collaborations between satellite operators and wireless companies”. In February, the FCC issued a 160-page “Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” to establish what the agency called the world’s first regulatory framework for terrestrial to space inter-connectivity. The intent is “to enable collaborations between satellite operators and terrestrial service providers to offer ubiquitous connectivity, directly to consumer handsets using spectrum previously allocated only to terrestrial service.”

A March 11 Scotiabank report discussed work underway between AST Spacemobile and Latin American operator AMX as well as TIM Brasil. The report provided capital cost metrics that demonstrate why there is such a high level of interest in interoperability. Scotiabank is calculating the cost of connecting a subscriber in a remote area with a traditional terrestrial tower at a minimum of US$111/subscriber. This estimate includes “civil infrastructure, radio access network [RAN], backhaul, core, software, and permitting”. In lower population density areas, Scotiabank says the cost could be as high as US$500/subscriber.

By way of comparison, the bank says “SpaceMobile’s BlueBird satellites could do the job for US$10/sub”, based on 750 MB of data consumption per month, “an ideal solution for distant areas out of coverage”.

Recently, RCR Wireless News reported on developments from the Satellite 2024 conference. According to the RCR report, many of the players are talking about the need to get “orders of magnitude improvement in airtime pricing”. During one of the panel discussions, Mark Dankberg, CEO of ViaSat said that “while satellite thinks of pricing in terms of dollars-per-megabyte, terrestrial network operators are thinking dollars-per-gigabyte.”

Nonetheless, work on cellular and satellite convergence is progressing. A year ago, Rogers and SpaceX announced an agreement enabling Canadians to stay connected beyond the limits of terrestrial wireless networks. Last week, the Canadian government agreed to lend more than $2 billion to Telesat to help fund development of its broadband satellite constellation.

How will the economics work? According to Scotiabank, cellular and satellite convergence could be a “structural solution to a cash-strapped telecom industry.” The bank estimates that the global telecom industry invests more than US$310B in capital each year, in addition to US$68B in tower leases. Scotiabank estimates mobile carriers spend more than 15% of consolidated capital each year in RAN investments in lower density or non-profitable areas, “frequently to comply with license requirements.” As a result, Scotiabank believes satellite-enabled connectivity could represent US$46.5B in annual capital savings for mobile operators.

With a trillion dollars in equity potential, cellular and satellite convergence is truly the next space race.

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