Two-way satellite messaging technology explained

MediaTek’s 3GPP NTN (Non-Terrestrial Network) chipset will use two-way satellite messaging technology to ensure connectivity in areas where traditional cell phone towers are unavailable.

With everything modern smartphones can do, it’s easy to forget that they are, first and foremost, phones. The fact that we can call someone anytime and anywhere is something we now take for granted. However, we’ve all come across “dead zones” where there just isn’t any connectivity. These places can feel like black holes where you feel alone and cut off from the rest of the world.

For most of us, this is thankfully nothing more than a mild annoyance. However, it can become life-threatening very quickly when an emergency happens while you are hiking, driving in a secluded area, on a boat, and so on; situations where getting a message out to the outside world can mean the difference between life and death.

This is where MediaTek’s new satellite technology comes into play. The semiconductor company has been working on chipsets capable of connecting the devices we use on earth with the satellites flying high above us.

Understanding the new technology

MediaTek’s new technology will be first utilized by Bullitt, which will launch the world’s first mobile devices that feature two-way satellite messaging technology. Bullitt-designed 5G smartphones will be the first to use MediaTek’s 3GPP NTN (Non-Terrestrial Network) chipset. The two companies have also developed software and service components in parallel to provide satellite messaging services.

To understand why this is so important, we need to understand exactly how mobile phones work.

How mobile phones work

When you make a call or send a message, your mobile phone doesn’t directly connect with the recipient. Instead, your voice or message is converted into a digital signal and it sends radio waves to a nearby cell tower. This tower then forwards this across to the recipient and the same process is repeated at the other end so that your phone receives the signal from the recipient. This is obviously an oversimplification, but it is how mobile phones work in general.

As you might have realized, the cell tower plays a key role in the system and is also the weakest link. This is why mobile phone services tend to go down in remote locations, or after natural disasters. Physical infrastructure is vital to keep mobile phone communications going.

With satellites, this isn’t the case. Unlike cell towers, satellites are present everywhere as they‘re up in orbit. This means that all a user will need is open skies above them and they can stay connected.

How the system works

Phones with this technology will be able to intelligently and automatically switch to a satellite link when no cellular or Wi-Fi connection is available. The service will also integrate with the user’s existing contacts in order to make the whole process feel seamless and straightforward. The time taken to initially connect to a satellite and send a message is around 10 seconds.

The system uses 5G-NTN as defined in 3GPP R17. This includes two connectivity standards: IoT-NTN and NR-NTN. IoT-NTN is designed for low data rate connections. This would include communication mediums such as messaging or non-real-time data. As such, this would be best used by industries such as agriculture, forestry, transportation, logistics and more that operate in remote areas.

NR-NTN, on the other hand, offers long-range communication with data rates that allow users to make calls and use apps. The idea is to deliver global service to remote areas like mountains, deserts, tundra, and across oceans. It will enable services such as navigation and real-time communication.

With NR-NTN, there is a condition that it poses no additional hardware or operational burden to end users. This means that it should operate seamlessly in mainstream mass devices such as smartphones.

MediaTek is the main driver of 5G NR-NTN technology based on 3GPP open standards. As such, it is a leader in the industry with first-to-market achievements in the 5G NR-NTN open solutions field. Last August, MediaTek announced that it collaborated with Rohde & Schwarz and ITRI to demonstrate the world’s first successful test of 5G NR-NTN connectivity. With this, MediaTek demonstrated a world-first and showcased the capability of supporting satellite communications with commercial 5G smartphone hardware.

MWC 2023 saw a continuation of this technology. During the event, MediaTek demonstrated another industry-first by establishing a live 5G NR-NTN connection via a prototype smartphone.

Key advantages of this technology

The fact that this technology can work without the need for cell towers means that users will always be connected. The lack of cell towers could be due to the remoteness of the location, or due to damage caused by natural disasters. So if you ever find yourself in an emergency, you can still use your phone to get help. This could come in useful even in areas covered by a terrestrial tower, in the case of natural disasters during which many working cell towers might get clogged due to a large volume of emergency calls being made at the same time.

To be fair, satellite phones have been in use for quite some time; these specialized communication devices are used by those who venture into locations where mobile connectivity is suspect. This includes adventures, aid workers, journalists, critical responders, and more. Unfortunately, the technology has been prohibitive and inaccessible for general consumers due to the costs. Going forward, however, MediaTek is making it possible for satellite connectivity to become more accessible to the mainstream consumer, and something you can carry with you wherever you go.

When can we expect the technology to be available?

Thankfully, people around the world will not have to wait too long to see this technology in action. Bullitt’s first devices and satellite service will be commercially available in the first quarter of this year, making them the first to feature MediaTek’s two-way satellite messaging technology. Competition from companies like Qualcomm and Apple ensure even further democratization of NTN technology as consumers will have plenty of options to choose from in the near future.

With this technology in place, smartphones of the future look all set to be literal life-savers during emergencies. It also adds a great deal of comfort and peace of mind with the knowledge that you are never too far away from help and assistance.