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Staff at satellite communications company Inmarsat work in front of a screen showing subscribers using their service throughout the world, at their headquarters in London March 25, 2014.Andrew Winning/Reuters

Canadians could soon be able to access wireless service from their smartphones in some of the country’s most remote regions thanks to developments in satellite technology.

Currently, the only way to access mobile phone service in the most far-flung areas is via proprietary satellite phones – devices designed specifically to connect to satellites – with plans from companies such as Iridium IRDM-Q, Inmarsat and Globalstar GSAT-A.

That’s about to change, as wireless carriers are partnering with satellite operators to deliver what’s known as direct-to-device service, which connects satellites to everyday smartphones. The service is poised to both invigorate and disrupt the satellite communications industry, eventually eliminating the need for proprietary handsets altogether.

Given Canada’s size and low population density outside major cities and towns, cellular networks cover only a small portion of the total land mass. Satellite-to-phone connectivity promises to enhance public safety by doing away with coverage dead zones, according to telecom industry executives.

“It’s very important for people who get lost in the woods while hunting or have an accident on an extremely rural road to be able to call emergency services,” said Bernard Bureau, Telus Corp.’s T-T vice-president of network and architecture.

Both Telus and Rogers Communications Inc. RCI-B-T have recently conducted satellite-to-mobile phone tests and have plans to launch the service in 2024, although the telecoms have opted for different approaches, each with benefits and drawbacks. A key difference is the type of spectrum – wireless airwaves – they plan to use.

The approach that Vancouver-based Telus is exploring involves using spectrum that is already designated to be used by satellites.

In November, the telecom announced that it had completed a trial of two-way communication between smartphones and satellites, working alongside Canadian satellite operator TerreStar Solutions Inc. and Mountain View, Calif.-based service provider Skylo Technologies.

Montreal-based TerreStar already owns licences to the wireless airwaves it will need to deliver the service, which means that no regulatory approvals are needed. TerreStar’s spectrum is in what’s known as the S-band, a range of frequencies which, according to company chief executive Jacques Leduc, “has been defined as the best spectrum for non-terrestrial service – meaning the best spectrum for going through clouds, rain and snow to reach everyday devices.”

The downside is that the current generation of smartphones isn’t compatible with satellite spectrum. Devices equipped to operate on those frequencies are expected to come onto the market in 2024.

“You need to wait until the chipset manufacturers, the smartphone manufacturers incorporate the satellite bands into the devices, and you need to wait until those devices reach the market. So it takes a bit longer to ramp up the service,” said Lluc Palerm, principal analyst at consultancy firm NSR, an Analysys Mason company.

Rogers, meanwhile, has partnered with satellite operators who are employing a different strategy: using airwaves that regulators have designated for terrestrial use in space.

The Toronto-based telecom giant has struck deals with two operators – Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Lynk Global – to provide satellite-to-phone connectivity to its wireless customers. In mid-December, Rogers and Lynk announced that they had successfully connected a satellite-to-mobile-phone call between Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey and a member of the Newfoundland and Labrador Search and Rescue Association. The call took place in the town of Heart’s Content, N.L., where the first successful transatlantic telegraph cable was landed more than 150 years ago.

The main advantage of the approach that Rogers and its partners are taking is that it works with the vast majority of smartphones currently in use, said Ron McKenzie, chief technology and information officer at Rogers. For instance, the test call that Rogers and Lynk demonstrated was conducted using a Samsung S22 smartphone.

The downside is that because the spectrum is designated for terrestrial use, telecoms who wish to use it for satellite communications will need permission from the federal agency that regulates wireless airwaves, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada.

“That might take some time, to convince the regulators that it won’t cause any interference,” Mr. Palerm said.

“The other challenge is that the devices weren’t designed to communicate with satellites,” he added. “So at the end of the day, the performance might be a bit lower than using satellite spectrum.”

Telus and Rogers have yet to announce how much the service will cost consumers.

BCE Inc. BCE-T, meanwhile, has not announced plans to launch satellite-to-phone service, although its corporate venture capital arm, Bell Ventures, is an investor in AST SpaceMobile, which bills itself as a “leading direct-to-cell technology company building space-based cellular broadband.”

Wireless carriers aren’t the only ones striking partnerships with satellite operators to provide connectivity in remote areas. Apple offers a proprietary service to users of its latest generation of iPhones in Canada, the U.S. and parts of Europe that allows people to text emergency services while outside of cellular and WiFi coverage by connecting to one of Globalstar’s low-Earth-orbit satellites.

But satellite connectivity will never replace the need for terrestrial cellular networks, Mr. Palerm said. “It’s always going to be a compliment, and it’s always going to be for the last three per cent of the network. It’s always going to be very rural.”

Direct-to-device service is expected to disrupt the market for satellite phones. A customer looking for wireless connectivity while on a sailing trip is not likely to splurge for a satellite phone if their wireless carrier already offers such a service, Mr. Palerm said. In the short term, however, demand for proprietary devices is likely to remain, at least from enterprise customers who need guaranteed service, he added.

“If you are an oil and gas rig and you want a certain level of certainty that you are going to have connectivity, you are probably going to stick with the legacy service,” he said – at least for now.

In the long run, the industry will move to the direct-to-device model, Mr. Palerm predicts. “Eventually, it will all converge.”

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