28 March, 2023

Seamless cellular-satellite connectivity is coming to Earth

Exploring the emerging opportunity for a satellite roaming to extend MNO coverage at a reasonable price.

Imagine having a telematics device that seamlessly switches between cellular and satellite connectivity to get coverage everywhere on Earth. You may say — “Nothing new — you can easily set this up by adding an Iridium or an Inmarsat accessory box to a regular cellular telematics device. And the connection will failover to satellite connectivity whenever a cellular tower is out of reach”. Well, that is right. But! The list of drawbacks is long-winding. To name a few:

  • One device to track one vehicle or an asset becomes two devices. That translates into an additional failure point, more complicated installation and initial setup 

  • Two data plans and two different connectivity vendor relationships to manage. 

  • Two separate connectivity portals to oversee and manage the usage, alerts, pooling, billing, etc. 

  • Higher total cost of ownership for the solution, considering relatively high price for proprietary modules  

In contrast to everything above — how about a single device with a single communication module and one data plan from a single connectivity provider, that enables seamless cellular-to-satellite roaming? That, you will say, is science fiction. And, again — you will be right. For now. What you may not realize is how close one company is to making this a reality!

sateliot satellite roaming

Last week I spoke with Tuan Fachinetti from Sateliot, a Barcelona-based start-up, which came up with a fascinating solution. They will literally try to take 5G Narrow Band IoT connectivity into space!

Sateliot’s satellites will expand mobile operator (MNOs) coverage through standard roaming agreements. This means that any NB-IoT device can connect effortlessly to satellite or cellular networks, allowing for the massive adoption of IoT, even in the most remote areas. Currently, only 15% of the world has cellular coverage, Sateliot’s mission is to enable digitalization to happen everywhere, allowing everyone to digitize their activities in the easiest way possible. They envision the future of 5G IoT as a single network that integrates cellular and satellite into one network. 

Their first commercial satellite will be launched in partnership with SpaceX in the next few months. With just one satellite in orbit, only delay-tolerant applications will be supported. The satellite “visibility” at any one point on Earth will be limited to 4-5 hours per day. Six months later, in October, four more satellites will follow. By the end of 2024, 64 satellites are expected to be in operation, which will increase the possible transmission frequency to every half hour. The completed satellite constellation will consist of 250 satellites by 2025 that will enable real-time coverage. The constellation will operate in what’s called LEO (Low Earth Orbit) at a distance of 550 km from the surface.

From what I can see, the main hurdle to overcome currently is to have compliant chipsets and modules released and made them available to device makers. You might have heard about 3GPP. It’s an organization, whose mobile communication standards around 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G are used by network operators, equipment manufacturers, and other stakeholders to ensure compatibility and interoperability of their products and services all over the world. Release 17 of the 3GPP specifications, which provides for IoT over NTN (Non Terrestrial Network, i.e., Satellite), was approved last year. It’s a very hot topic in the industry right now with QualcommMediatekUnisoc and others building compliant chips to support it. Just a month ago Samsung made an announcement about building this technology into their smartphone modem in the near future. 

From the cost perspective, the projected incremental service price to add satellite roaming to your device is between $1.40–4.00 per device depending on the number of lines activated. It seems very reasonable.

If this sounds interesting and you envision a use case for your business in the future, do sign up for testing and for a chance to be an early adopter. To do so, try Sateliot’s free trial on their website.

At flespi we see our mission in not only providing you with software tools to help your telematics projects, but also in informing you of interesting trends and technological developments related to IoT and telematics. Such developments are likely to be part of the environment in which you will operate in the future. We hope this is interesting and informative. Please leave your comments in the forum discussion below.