Word has leaked out that Apple is working on a satellite project. The company is at the beginning of the research project, so there is no way to know exactly what they have in mind. For example, is the company considering launching satellites or would they lease capacity from one of the other planned satellite networks?
The fact that Apple is working on the concept is a good segue to discuss the many ways that satellite connectivity could be useful to Apple or other companies. It’s hard to find any press that doesn’t assume that the satellite constellations will be used mostly for rural broadband, but there are numerous other ways that Apple or others could use low-orbit satellites.
One of the more obvious ways that Apple could use satellites is by offering its own branded broadband to go with their devices. It’s not hard to imagine iMacs or IPads having the option to be bundled with Apple satellite broadband, particularly for customers that don’t have adequate home broadband today. With the current vision of satellite technology, any customer connected this way would need the same sort of dish at their home as envisioned by Starlink – a flat dinner-plate-sized antenna that doesn’t have to be ‘aimed’ at the satellites.
Apple might instead be thinking of using satellites to communicate with cellphones, which would allow the company to un-tether from cellular companies. It’s unlikely that the fleets of low-orbit broadband satellites could communicate with something as small as a cellphone. However, a new company – AST & Science – recently announced that they have found a way that cellphones can communicate through satellites. This involves putting up large satellites that would act as a cellular repeater in the sky. For a space nerd like me this brings back memories of Echo 1, pictured above, which was a giant balloon that acted as a passive reflector of microwave signals. AST & Science says that this kind of satellite would act as a cellular repeater rather than as a cell site – it would connect cellphones to a cell site elsewhere.
Apple might also be considering an automobile antenna that can work with satellites. A satellite-to-car antenna would open up a host of products for Apple including smart car connectivity products. This would not be the data-intensive connections imagined by the self-driving car folks, but even a relatively slow satellite connection of even 25 Mbps would open up a whole range of broadband products for use in vehicles.
Apple’s early research might go nowhere and they might just be brainstorming on what is practically possible. The fact that companies like Apple are looking at satellites points out that there are likely many applications for satellite broadband that nobody is talking about. It makes sense that the press, for now, is concentrating on whether any of the proposed satellite constellations ever get launched, because until they are in the sky all of this discussion is purely speculative.
However, the possibilities are endless. How many uses can be developed for a worldwide broadband network that’s available everywhere? Some applications seem obvious, like tying together communications for all of the locations of a worldwide corporation into a big private network. It’s not hard to imagine school systems using the satellites as the way to get broadband for homework to every student. I’m betting there are hundreds of other ideas that have market potential. It will be interesting to see which ones are of the most interest to Apple.