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What happens when the whole world is covered?

Direct to phone satellite connectivity is coming. In fact, it’s already here and it’s changing the economics of rural coverage. But is it a friend or foe to towercos?

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Low earth orbit satellites can connect to your phone directly, using normal GSM spectrum, and allow you to completely avoid terrestrial cell tower infrastructure. This isn’t the future, its already happening today with Lynk. Game over for towercos? Hardly. In fact, as discussed below with Bradley Shaw, Vice President - Middle East and Africa at Lynk, the business models complement each other. Towercos can concentrate their capital on the highest traffic markets while operators and regulators can rest assured that complete population coverage is possible.

TowerXchange Welcome back to TowerXchange Bradley, can you explain what Lynk do and briefly reintroduce yourself to our audience?

Bradley Shaw, Vice President - Middle East and Africa, Lynk:

Great to be back speaking with TowerXchange. I am Bradley Shaw the Vice President Middle East and Africa for Lynk Global. Having spoken at three previous TowerXchange events many of your audience will know me having represented both NuRAN Wireless and Vanu in the RAN and Network-as-a-Service (NAAS) space in Africa.

Now I’m with Lynk, currently the only patented, proven and commercially licensed satellite direct to phone solution globally. We hold several key patents covering the doppler compensation which overcomes the fact that the satellite is moving at over 14,000km/h, while historically the tower is stationary. The second key patent family covers the timing compensation, which overcomes the fact that a 2G device is looking for a tower no further than 30km away from the device, whereas the satellite is in orbit 500km overhead.

We are currently testing in over 20 countries and on all seven continents and have signed commercial contracts with over 30 operators globally.

We are also the first and only satellite direct to mobile provider that has received a commercial license to deliver services. We received our commercial license from the FCC in September 2022.

TowerXchange: How is Lynk different to geostationary satellite companies providing VSAT backhaul or other LEO companies like Starlink offering broadband internet?

Bradley Shaw, Vice President - Middle East and Africa, Lynk:

Great question, so with your traditional satellite operators whether in the GEO, MEO or LEO orbits, the satellite requires special antennae on the ground to receive the signal and provide connectivity. This applies to whatever that connectivity might be, wi-fi for a remote community, back-up for an enterprise installation or a mobile operator using VSAT as the backhaul for a remote tower.

Where Lynk is different is we will be communicating directly to all unmodified 3GPP mobile devices using the MNO’s spectrum. Thus we do NOT require any terrestrial infrastructure to provide our MNO partner customers with service nor any changes to customer’s existing phones.

TowerXchange: How do you work with mobile operators to provide coverage and reach new communities and locations?

Bradley Shaw, Vice President - Middle East and Africa, Lynk:

We provide the “Cell Tower in Space” for MNOs to extend their wireless networks to cover ALL of their geography. With my experience of working in the RAN space in Africa, having spent much time speaking with MNO’s regulators and Universal Service Fund administrators, I know full well that covering Africa is very hard. It is a market of vast spaces, very low ARPUs and very high input costs. Considering all of that we offer the MNOs the ability to cover these remote areas with ZERO CAPEX or OPEX. It is a fairly compelling offering.

Once we are looking to go live with an MNO it is a very collaborative approach to ensuring that the coverage gaps are filled and that we are providing the coverage where the MNO needs it.

TowerXchange: What services are you able to provide to operators today? When will you be able to offer voice and 5G?

Bradley Shaw, Vice President - Middle East and Africa, Lynk:

We currently operate three Cell Towers in Space capable of 2G/4G and 5G. The 5G payload is there for testing at this time. We are starting with simple/low-erlang traffic focussed on:

a) Mass notifications (ability for MNOs to message their subscribers outside of terrestrial coverage – (New Zealand and Palau are examples)

b) IoT – ability to connect all remote and out of coverage IoT devices (irrigation sensors, cargo at sea, etc)

c) Periodic messaging (SMS and IP messaging like WhatsApp). Some coverage is infinitely better than no coverage so providing subscribers the ability to communication (even a few times a day at first) is life changing. We anticipate providing seamless messaging (i.e. we will always have a satellite close enough to complete the message) in 2024.

By the end of 2025, MNOs will be able to offer voice and data once we ramp up production and ensure there are enough satellites in orbit to “hand over” the voice or data session so that the session is continuous.

What progress are you making on launching satellites and making them operational? What are the key milestone you have ahead of you to provide continuous high-bandwidth service?

Bradley Shaw, Vice President - Middle East and Africa, Lynk:

Launching satellites is a crucial KPI for any LEO satellite operator due to the number of satellites that need to be launched. So far we have launched eight satellites. Five were test versions and have been decommissioned. Our other three are Lynk Towers which are which are in orbit providing service to ALIV in the Bahamas. We will be onboarding additional MNOs over the coming months. So the operationalisation of the satellites is moving along smoothly. We expect this to continue as we launch more and more satellites.

TowerXchange: Is Lynk a competitor or partner for towercos? How do you envision complementing or supplanting the towerco business model?

Bradley Shaw, Vice President - Middle East and Africa, Lynk:

Lynk is complementary with the towercos in the market, as it is just not feasible nor economical to cover the entire planet.

A recent GSMA study in Africa estimates that terrestrial towers are not economical in roughly 50% of the continent. Also, with any satellite business, network density is one of the biggest problems. A satellite at 500km is going to struggle to compete with a large macro tower in a dense urban environment. However, a macro tower cannot cover a 300km distance across a desert or piece of water. Our satellites can.

So we potentially see a shift in the market where the very small ‘Ultra-Ultra Rural’ sites with towers offering 2G and 3G don’t need to be built anymore as that coverage can be provided by our satellite. That way we see the towercos focusing on their profitable urban and suburban markets where they can achieve tenancy ratios of over 2.5x that seem to be all but impossible in rural areas.

TowerXchange: You’re currently raising financing, how much capital have your deployed, how much are you raising, and how much do you envision needing to reach “full scale”? Where would you like to see Lynk in five years’ time?

Bradley Shaw, Vice President - Middle East and Africa, Lynk:

Lynk is privately owned and continuing to raise the capital required to achieve seamless service globally. Over the past 5 years, Lynk invented the technology, developed, built and launched eight spacecraft, obtained a commercial license from the FCC and launched initial service.

In 5 years’ time I would expect Lynk to have a live operational network delivering service to billions of customers globally in a changed world where there are NO COVERAGE GAPS and all people have access to services wherever they are. Top of Mount Everest: we got you covered. Middle of the Ocean: We got you covered. Sitting in your village in the middle of Congo Basin Forest or sitting on Bazaruto island: We got you covered.