Iridium to support direct 3GPP-based 5G IoT connections by 2026

Iridium to support direct 3GPP-based 5G IoT connections by 2026

Global LEO satellite operator Iridium has unveiled ‘Project Stardust’, its new direct-to-device (D2D) strategy that will support 3GPP-compliant 5G IoT devices on its network starting in 2026.

Iridium will upgrade its constellation of LEOsats to support NB-IoT over non-terrestrial networks (NTN), a feature introduced in 3GPP’s Release 17 that enables 5G networks to incorporate LEOsats into their 5G network architectures.

Iridium said its initial NB-IoT offering will support 5G NTN messaging and SOS capabilities for smartphones, tablets, cars, and related consumer applications.

Project Stardust could potentially be of interest in developing countries that have been looking at LEOsats and other satellite-based service as a way to bring connectivity to remote and unserved areas.

Companies like SpaceX, Lynk Global and AST SpaceMobile are currently developing LEO constellations that support D2D connectivity. Last week, SpaceX launched the first of its Starlink satellites that connect directly to smartphones, with Entel Chile being among the first mobile operators to sign a deal to use them. Lynk has launched initial services in the Solomon Islands, Ghana, Palau and Cook Islands. In November 2023, Now Corporation signed a MoU with AST SpaceMobile to connect remote locations in the Philippines.

Iridium mostly serves vertical industry segments through a wholesale model. However, Iridium spokesperson Jordan Hassin told Developing Telecoms that its NB-IoT applications could expand the IoT use cases within those verticals, while D2D applications tend to be more consumer-oriented.

“Our partner companies – the device manufacturers and end-user service providers – will determine their own various customer market opportunities,” he said.

As of the third quarter of 2023, Iridium has over 2.2 million users globally, and serves around 1.7 million IoT customers, including 900,000 personal trackers and satellite messengers for consumer, enterprise, and government applications.

Change of plans

Iridium first revealed plans for target the D2D sector in January 2023. However, it opted for a proprietary approach that required specialised chips to be integrated into 5G devices. Iridium had partnered with Qualcomm to design the chips for Android smartphones, but Qualcomm pulled out of the project in November as OEMs showed little interest.

"The industry is moving quickly towards a more standards-based approach, and after surveying the field, we found that we're the best positioned to lead the way using our own network, particularly given our true global coverage,” said Iridium CEO Matt Desch in a statement.

However, while Iridium’s LEOsats will support 3GPP standards for 5G NTN connectivity, manufacturers will still have to redesign 5G devices to use Iridium’s L-band frequencies (1616 and 1626.5 MHz). By contrast, SpaceX, Lynk and AST SpaceMobile use cellular spectrum bands that existing mobile devices already support.

Iridium’s Hassin said this isn’t a disadvantage for Iridium because those service providers have to negotiate with mobile operator partners and regulators in each country to get access to that spectrum.

“Our globally allocated and coordinated satellite spectrum means we don’t rely on MNOs’ or other companies’ spectrums or the same types of regulatory approval hurdles they will face country by country,” he said.

Hassin added that Iridium’s other chief advantage – besides its ability to transmit signals directly between satellites – is that it’s a seasoned operator with a fully established network and ecosystem.

“Overall, our network is fully deployed today and we have decades of experience onboarding new partners, understanding their goals and objectives and supporting them to quickly get to market,” he said. “That comes with all the back office and provisioning, and billing and customer support systems all needed to support them and the new service.”

Meanwhile, Iridium anticipates testing of the service to start in 2025, with service commencing in 2026 – which it says gives smartphone companies, OEMs, chipmakers, MNOs and related IoT developers plenty of time to “have their requirements woven into the fabric of the Iridium network.”


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