Apple working on secret satellite, wireless tech initiative – report

Apple appears to be cooking up a new satellite project involving next-generation wireless technology, though the iPhone-maker’s exact goal remains unclear, according to a new Bloomberg report.

Around a dozen engineers focused on aerospace, satellite and antenna design are working on the project, and although work is still in early stages, the hope is to deploy results within five years, the report noted, citing unnamed sources familiar with the work.

Exactly what the satellites and wireless technology would be used for still isn’t set in stone, and the initiative could reportedly be abandoned, according to the sources. Bloomberg indicated Apple may be trying to deliver data to user devices, circumventing traditional wireless carriers, or looking to satellites for more accurate location tracking to improve maps or new functions on Apple devices.

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Whether Apple is looking to develop its own satellite constellation or use terrestrial equipment and leverage existing satellites “to beam data to a user’s device” is still unclear, according to Bloomberg.

Satellite expert and analyst Tim Farrar, principal at TMF Associates, pointed to Lynk (formerly UbiquitiLink) as a company that’s working to facilitate direct-to-handset communication from low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites for messaging and data connectivity.

Farrar told FierceWireless that Lynk’s efforts “could effectively create a global iMessage platform,” but noted there are several challenges, including access to spectrum for the satellite system.

As of September, Northern Virginia-based Lynk said it had successfully conducted two initial “cell tower in space” tests using prototypes from the International Space Station, with plans to launch 24-36 LEO satellites in 2021, with “several thousand” additional satellites planned for launch by 2023.

According to Lynk, the company aims to deliver ubiquitous global connectivity to consumers using their mobile handsets and devices, without the need to change any software or hardware when they travel outside the range of terrestrial cellular coverage.

Bloomberg’s report noted that Apple has recently been padding its team with executives and experts from the wireless and satellite communications industries, including Ashley Moore Williams of Aerospace Corps and Matt Ettus, who created wireless networking equipment company Ettus Research.

Former heads of Google’s satellite and spacecraft operations Michael Trela and John Fenwick appear to be leading the project’s team.

Apple would not be the first tech giant to explore satellite communications. Amazon earlier this year sought permission from the Federal Communications Commission to launch 3,236 satellites, with its Kuiper initiative aimed at delivering broadband connectivity around the globe. 

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Similar to Amazon, other companies pursuing satellite-based internet plans include SpaceX, which launched 60 of its planned 12,000 broadband satellites in late May. Startup OneWeb previously started launching its low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites for broadband, with plans to offer high-speed, low-latency service by 2021.

Kepler Communications secured FCC approval in 2018 for its constellation of about 140 NGSO satellites. The company said its next-generation satellites include both a high-capacity Ku-band communications system and a narrowband payload that can deliver high-speed data transfers as well as low-power, direct-to-satellite IoT connectivity.

Editor's note: This article was updated to include comments from Tim Farrar and information on Lynk.