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April 15, 2020: In a major technological breakthrough an American firm, Lynk Global, conducted several demonstrations in February, before numerous industry experts in which one of the three new Lynk LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellites successfully enabled an ordinary cellphone in the U.S. to send text messages via that satellite 500 kilometers away to other another cellphone in the Falkland Islands (in the South Atlantic). Standard earth-based cell towers have a maximum range of 35 kilometers and there are not enough cell towers to cover the entire planet. Lynk eliminates the problems an estimated 750 million cellphone users have each day in not being able to get a signal. Lynk can also provide cellphone service to over a billion people who live in areas without access to cell phone networks. Lynk is literally a cell tower in space that sends 2G signals to any cellphone below. Initially, Lynk will provide a global texting service. As the satellite technology is improved, voice calls will be available as well. Lynk does not make ground-based cell towers obsolete because these local cell towers can provide high-speed service needed to access most of what is on the Internet. Other firms have developed satellite-based Internet service but these require special, but small and inexpensive, equipment to access them. Lynk will work with any of the existing five billion cellphones. Lynk also takes advantage of the fact that most cellphone users prefer to use texting rather than voice calls. Access to the Lynk network will be sold separately although 30 existing cellphone service providers have already agreed to offer Lynk service as an optional feature of their networks. For two billion people in remote areas, Lynk will provide a reliable and affordable to existing cellphone service.

For the military and emergency service organizations Lynk will be a lifesaver. In the aftermath of major storms, earthquakes and such, a major problem people in the disaster zone and emergency responders have is reliable communications. Cell phone towers are put out of action, sometimes for months. Yet in the first days of such disasters communications are vital and a matter of life or death. Lynk expects to begin offering texting service by the end of 2020 as it puts more satellites into orbit. For Lynk, this service is seen as a $300 billion a year market for them, plus a boost to sales of cell phones to many people who never bothered to get one because they lived in an area without any service and not much expectation of such service being installed. While many of these remote areas are populated by people without a lot of income the fact that Lynk will work with any cellphone, including the many budget phones (under $100) or even cheaper (under $20) second-hand phones, they will be able to afford Lynk.

Lynk will also provide a missing capability that the military has been seeking. Troops often operate in areas where there is little or no cell phone service and for the last twenty years, the U.S. Department of Defense and other government agencies have been working to equip commercial cellphones with encryption and other features that make cellphones usable in a combat zone.

Back in 2012 the American NSA (National Security Agency), responding to troop demands for modern communications capabilities on the battlefield, created a version of the cell phone/tablet Android operating system suitable for combat use. SE (Security Enhanced) Android was based on a SE Linux version that NSA developed in 2000. NSA has been active for decades in "hardening" PC operating systems. Since Android is based on Linux, NSA had a head start in creating SE Android.

SE Android is the last key element the U.S. Army needs to move commercial smartphones and tablets onto the battlefield. The troops have been clamoring for a combat smartphone, and in 2011 the U.S. Army began field-testing the Atrix smartphone and Galaxy tablet. Both use Android and are designated as NWEUD (Nett Warrior End-User Device) by the military. The U.S. has continued this work and troops will be able to use Lynk along with their encrypted messaging systems.

The U.S. Department of Defense pioneered the wired spread use of satellite phones by the troops. In 2000 the Department of Defense got this started when it rescued Iridium, an existing global satellite phone system. The Iridium satellite network was put into orbit during the 1990s at a cost of $5.5 billion. Alas, not enough customers could be obtained for the expensive satellite telephone service, and in 2000 the company was not only broke but no one wanted to take over its network of 79 satellites. The situation was so dire that the birds were going to be de-orbited (brought lower so they would burn up in the atmosphere.) Then the Department of Defense stepped in with an offer. For $3 million a month the Department of Defense would get unlimited use of up to 20,000 devices (mostly phones, but also pagers and such.) That was enough for someone to come in and take over the satellite system (which cost more than $3 million a month to operate) and make a go of it. The new owners didn’t have the $5.5 billion in debt to worry about and were able to lower prices enough that they were able to sign up 80,000 other customers (civilian and military.)

The Department of Defense paid about $150-$200 a month per satellite phone account under the 2000 contract. Civilian customers paid more and the company thrived. Eventually, Iridium was able to launch a new generation of satellites that provided faster and cheaper service.

Iridium survived in large part because of the Pentagon business that grew larger after September 11, 2001. In 2013 the Department of Defense signed a five year, $400 million contract with Iridium. By 2014 there were over 51,000 Department of Defense and other U.S. government Iridium users. That has since grown to over 75,000 and troops in remote areas had plenty of satellite phones. But many also had their cell phones and a service like Lynk can translate into less gear for troops to carry.

In 2014 the Department of Defense arranged for satellite telephone service provider Iridium to supply small (300 gr/10.3 ounces and the size of a small paperback) battery-powered Iridium GO! devices that can connect to the Iridium satphone network and provide a local wifi hotspot. Up to five users with wifi devices within about 30 meters (a hundred feet) of the Iridium GO! can have Internet access. That means smartphones or tablets can use texting and Skype to make phone calls, or a browser for web search and limited downloading. All of this uses military encryption. The Iridium Go! devices will cost the Department of Defense $800 each and the Iridium service is taken care of by the contracts the Department of Defense has had with Iridium for over a decade. Currently, the Department of Defense (which also provides other government agencies with satphone service) is Iridium's largest customer accounting for about 20 percent of revenues. “Go” type devices have since become smaller, cheaper and more capable.

Back in 2000, the plan was that each combat brigade would have over 500 satellite phone accounts. That was never needed, in part because the air force and navy wanted lots of satphones as well and the army began using portable satellite dishes to obtain high-speed service from military and commercial communication satellites.

The Iridium and other satellite communications capability was the key to making the battlefield Internet work, although the army has found that it’s more efficient (and cheaper) to use military radios and other wireless devices to the network with each other and get Internet access via satellite dishes connected with the military satellite communications system. But for many small units out in the bush, Iridium is still the way to go and cellphones filled with the growing number of military-related apps provide local access to all manner of computer-based tools.

Iridium offered “Go” services to a growing number of civilian organizations, especially first responders to large scale disasters. This, in addition to Lynk, solves most of the communications problems people in disaster areas encounter.

 


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