A Virginia-based company called Lynk has contracted with SpaceX to launch satellites that will be capable of providing connectivity to cellphones without the phones needing any special modifications. The satellites are scheduled to launch on a rideshare mission as early as December.
The launch of the satellites is still pending regulatory approval, though Lynk CEO Charles Miller seems confident that approval will go through quickly under streamlined rules for small satellites enacted by the FCC in 2019. The company announced its application for approval of up to 10 operational satellites on May 25. Previous rules might have caused concern about Lynk’s ability to monetize its satellite constellation.
“Before the new ‘smallsat rules’ we were thinking we could have dozens of satellites in orbit, but without the authority to provide commercial services,” Miller said.
He indicated that mobile network operators could bring high demand for a constellation like Lynk’s. They currently rely on a network of cell phone towers on the ground. Besides being able to reach areas that would be difficult for a cell phone tower to reach, cell phone satellites in orbit could provide a good backup in case some cell phone towers go down.
The service will be limited to text messages and emergency alerts at first. Lynk plans to beta test the satellites with mobile network operators in 12 countries who will have exclusive access in their respective countries for a short time. The beta phase will eventually be expanded to a total of 36 partners with more than 1.5 billion mobile subscribers.
When the constellation is ready for normal service, Lynk plans to launch as many as 5,000 satellites and produce 200 of them every month by 2025 to keep the network operational and upgraded. According to Miller, Lynk is already “actively looking at launches” that are likely to occur throughout 2022 as the FCC approves the launch and operation of its satellites.
“Our goal is to upgrade the spacecraft like clockwork, just like how iPhone is upgraded every year,” said Miller.
Lynk has already launched five test satellites, including a satellite called “Shannon” that launched on a SpaceX rideshare mission in June. With each satellite, the company makes improvements to the technology and especially the amount of power in the satellite.
Companies in the same niche as Lynk include the Texas-based company AST SpaceMobile, which raised $462 million in an IPO in April. It plans to start launching its cellphone service satellite constellation as early as the second half of 2022 and provide service for 49 countries along Earth’s equator, with a potential consumer base of about 1.6 billion people.
SpaceX has already flown two dedicated rideshare missions, Transporter-1 and Transporter-2, as a more affordable way for public and private organizations to launch small satellites into orbit without having to wait on the launch schedule for larger payloads. In June, Transporter-2 carried 88 satellites, including three of its own Starlink satellites, as well as satellites for a variety of companies that include Lynk, Spaceflight Inc., Exolaunch, D-Orbit, ISILaunch, and Nanoracks. Slots on SpaceX’s Transporter missions are available for as low as $1 million for the launch of a satellite up to 200 kilograms.