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Qualcomm and Iridium: Dissecting the Satellite-to-Phone Project Shift

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Under twelve months ago, a dynamic partnership between mobile chip titan Qualcomm and satellite company Iridium was unveiled. Fast forward to today and it seems the curtain has been swiftly drawn on the satellite-to-phone project.

Initially declared at CES 2023, the collaboration aimed to offer satellite-to-phone services through the use of Snapdragon Satellite, anchored on the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 SoC, in conjunction with Iridium’s satellites. However, shifting to the present, the venture appears to be headed in a different direction.

In an official statement from Iridium, the company confirmed that, despite the successful development and demonstration of the technology, smartphone manufacturers didn’t choose to integrate this feature. As a result, Qualcomm made the decision to conclude the agreement.

Iridium CEO Matt Desch openly expressed his disappointment, saying, “While I’m disappointed that this partnership didn’t bear immediate fruit, we believe the direction of the industry is clear toward increased satellite connectivity in consumer devices.” Despite the setback, Desch still sees Iridium as a major player in the emerging market for satellite connectivity, banking on their global coverage and regulatory certainty.

CNBC reported that Qualcomm indicated smartphone manufacturers prefer “standards-based solutions” for satellite-to-phone connectivity. Qualcomm stated they plan to “continue to collaborate with Iridium on standards-based solutions while discontinuing efforts on the proprietary solution that was introduced earlier this year.”

While the specifics on these standards-based collaborations remain unclear, the admissions suggest that the solution born from the short-lived partnership failed to woo potential clients.

Insight into the situation came from Peter Kibutu, Advanced Technology Lead – NTNs at 5G satellite consultancy TTP. He discussed that proprietary satellite technology serves as only a temporary step towards accomplishing the objective of direct-to-handset satellite communications, making the lack of interest from handset manufacturers understandable.

Kibutu went on to argue that the ultimate solution would be based on 3GPP NTN standards, utilizing the prevailing industry ecosystems. Designs based on these standards would ensure the accessibility of satellite connectivity across multiple networks, inviting new use cases and facilitating widespread adoption.

For Iridium, the termination of the agreement has opened up the possibility of re-engaging directly with various contributors in the smartphone industry, including OEMs, other chipmakers, and smartphone OS developers.

With Iridium’s forecast untouched for the year, it seems the partnership wasn’t anticipated to create notable ripples within the company’s financial scene. Nonetheless, the telecommunications world will be keenly watching the aftermath of this collaborative conclusion and awaiting further developments.

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