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Qualcomm and Iridium direct-to-device satellite partnership falls out of orbit

Much heralded non-terrestrial-network communications technology collaboration between chip firm and satellite tech company collapses after lack of take-up by smartphone device manufacturers

Chip giant Qualcomm Technologies has announced that it is to end its collaboration with global personal satellite communications Iridium Communications. 

Iridium announced an agreement with Qualcomm in January 2023 to enable satellite messaging and emergency services in smartphones powered by Snapdragon Mobile Platforms using its satellite network. Specifically, the agreement was designed to see the launch of what the two companies said would be the world’s first satellite-based two-way capable messaging offering, bringing satellite-based connectivity to next-generation premium smartphones.

Powered by Snapdragon 5G Modem-RF Systems and supported by the fully operational Iridium satellite constellation, the Snapdragon Satellite platform was designed to provide global connectivity using mobile messaging from around the world, starting with devices based on the flagship Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 Mobile Platform.

Snapdragon Satellite was built to allow manufacturers and other service providers to offer global coverage for smartphones using Iridium’s weather-resilient L-band spectrum for uplink and downlink, while emergency messaging on Snapdragon Satellite was planned to be available on next-generation smartphones, launched in select regions starting in the second half of 2023. Yet Qualcomm has notified Iridium that it has elected to terminate the agreement, effective 3 December 2023.

As it announced the termination of the partnership, Iridium noted that although the two companies had successfully developed and demonstrated the technology, smartphone manufacturers had not included the technology in their devices.

Going forward, Iridium said it would now be free to directly re-engage with smartphone manufacturers, other chipmakers and smartphone operating system developers that it had been collaborating with previously. It added that it would also be pursuing new relationships with smart device makers, chipmakers and developers for its existing and future service plans.

Iridium assured that companies electing to adopt one of its solutions would have long-term service certainty and could be involved in its Narrowband Non-Terrestrial-Network (NTN) service development planning, which was announced in September 2023.

“While I’m disappointed that this partnership didn’t bear immediate fruit, we believe the direction of the industry is clear towards increased satellite connectivity in consumer devices,” said Iridium CEO Matt Desch.

“Led by Apple today, MNOs and device manufacturers still plan, over time, to provide their customers with expanded coverage and new satellite-based features, and our global coverage and regulatory certainty make us well suited to be a key player in this emerging market. User experience will be critical to their success, and we’ve proven that we can provide a reliable, global capability to mobile users.”

The collapse of the partnership though has not come as a surprise to some industry analysts who predicted a rift was always a possibility, warning that while proprietary satellite technology could provide a short-term solution, handset manufacturers were instead looking to invest in long-term solutions.

“Proprietary satellite technology should only be seen as a short-term solution to meet the needs for direct-to-handset satellite communications, so it’s unsurprising that Qualcomm and Iridium have experienced a lack of uptake from handset manufacturers who are interested in long-term solutions … the use of proprietary solutions constrains the connectivity to individual satellite networks and doesn’t take advantage of the already vibrant standards-based ecosystem,” said Peter Kibutu, advanced technology lead – NTNs at 5G satellite consultancy TTP.

“The long-term solution, and one that Qualcomm says it expects to continue exploring with Iridium, will be based on 3GPP NTN standards and will leverage existing industry ecosystems. NTNs based on 3GPP standards will provide open access to satellite connectivity across multiple satellite and terrestrial networks, unlocking a wider market and new use cases. This openness is what will enable the mass adoption of direct-to-device NTN services, with global deployment of end-user services akin to what 4G operators offer today,” added Kibutu.

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