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A week in telecoms: Starlink launches first direct-to-cell satellites and Orange converges in Romania

Satellites grabbed headlines early in 2024 with the launch by T-Mobile and SpaceX launch of Starlink satellites supporting direct-to-cell capabilities, while Orange has created a fixed and mobile business in Romania and Dish and EchoStar have completed their merger.

Anne Morris
04 Jan 2024
A week in telecoms: Starlink launches first direct-to-cell satellites and Orange converges in Romania

A week in telecoms: Starlink launches first direct-to-cell satellites and Orange converges in Romania

T-Mobile US and SpaceX hail direct-to-cell satellite launches

T-Mobile and SpaceX announced the successful launch of six Starlink satellites that support direct-to-cell (also direct-to-device) capabilities, as part of efforts to provide mobile services in far-flung corners of the world.

SpaceX said it launched a total of 21 low-earth orbit satellites on the Falcon 9 rocket and reportedly plans to launch 840 direct-to-cell satellites in the coming months. The satellite operator indicates that it aims to start enabling text messaging from space this year, with voice, data, and Internet of Things connectivity coming in 2025.

The idea is that direct-to-cell services will be compatible with most existing handsets on the market, enabling operators to easily add the services to their offerings. 

T-Mobile was the first to link up with Starlink but has since been joined by Rogers in Canada, KDDI in Japan, Optus in Australia, One NZ in New Zealand, Salt in Switzerland, and Entel in Chile and Peru. 

Indeed, communications service providers (CSPs) around the world are joining forces with satellite service providers to solve backhaul and rural connectivity challenges.

For example, Deutsche Telekom has a partnership with Skylo and Intelsat, while Telefónica is collaborating with Sateliot. Vodafone formed a partnership with Project Kuiper, Amazon’s LEO communications initiative, and also backs AST SpaceMobile, which aims to provide ubiquitous network coverage for consumers also through direct-to-device connectivity.

A recent report from MTN Consulting noted that satellite operators are moving deeper into the telecoms space for new market opportunities such as broadband internet, D2D and IoT market segments to find new revenue streams. However, the analyst company said satellite operators are more likely to be a partnership opportunity than a threat to CSPs in traditional telecoms markets.

Orange creates fixed and mobile business in Romania

Orange is to form a single, combined mobile and fixed network operator in Romania under an agreement that will see the country’s government take a 20% stake. Completion of the transaction is expected in the first half of 2024.

Orange Romania acquired a 54% stake in Telekom Romania Communications in 2021, and renamed it Orange Romania Communications in 2022.

Now, as part of efforts to boost its overall convergence efforts, it is formally merging the two entities in order to become the “customers’ preferred choice for converged services on the Romanian market”.

Mari-Noëlle Jégo-Laveissière, Executive Vice President, CEO of Orange in Europe, commented that the signing of this agreement “will strengthen our position on the Romanian market and bring us closer to being a fully converged telecom operator for our residential and business customers.”

Meanwhile, Deutsche Telekom is also planning to offload the Romanian mobile operations that remained after it sold its fixed unit to Orange. The German group and Greek subsidiary OTE, which directly owns Telekom Romania Mobile Communications, are in talks to sell the business to Quantum Projects Group, which is controlled by Adrian Tomșa, the owner of Romanian broadcaster Clever Media Network (CMN).

Dish and EchoStar complete merger

Dish Network and EchoStar have completed their merger, announced in August 2023, to create “a global leader in terrestrial and non-terrestrial wireless connectivity.” 

The merger brings together Dish Network’s satellite technology, streaming services and 5G network, which it said now reaches 70% of the US population, with EchoStar’s satellite communications solutions.

Hamid Akhavan was named CEO of the combined operations in November last year. The move reunites the two providers more than five years after EchoStar was spun out of Dish. 

Akhavan said the new entity is “better positioned to realize the connected future by leveraging every type of transport, combined with smart, enabling technologies and fully integrated services.”

Dish owns Dish Wireless, which is building a cloud-native, open RAN-compliant 5G network. Speaking during Digital Transformation World 2022, Stephen Bye, the former Chief Commercial Officer at Dish Wireless, said the network “is built for enterprise. Unlike most wireless networks that were initially built for consumers, this is an enterprise native network”.

SK Telecom forecasts AI trends for 2024 

The continually innovative SK Telecom (SKT) has made no secret of its ambition to transform itself into an AI company, with a number of announcements in 2023. 

Choi Yun-jeong, research fellow at the SK Management and Economic Research Institute, has now provided his views on seven key technology trends this year, with a key focus on rapidly evolving AI developments.

For instance, he highlighted the growing deployment of generative AI (GenAI) at enterprises, noting that more cloud companies will provide various AI services using GenAI solutions or open source large language models.

Quantum technology was also namechecked as a key technology to watch, amid concerns about the adequacy of current encryption technology.

Choi also tackled the question of AI risk, pointing to concerns that technological power may be concentrated in the hands of specific operators. Here, he highlighted comments by Darren Acemoglu, a professor at the MIT Institute, that a balance of technological power and active social involvement are required for the future development of AI.

GenAI has certainly burst onto the scene in the past 12 months, with OpenAI’s ChatGPT to the fore. A recent report from TM Forum sets out some of the challenges for operators and provides recommendations for their future strategies.

Deutsche Telekom sets up new network API unit

Deutsche Telekom (DT) indicated that it is establishing a new unit that will be responsible for marketing network APIs. 

Peter Arbitter, the former Senior Vice-President of Portfolio & Product Marketing for Enterprise Customers at DT, has now been appointed SVP Business Unit MACE at the operator. Writing on LinkedIn, Arbitter said the new unit will start in January 2024 and will market the MagentaBusiness API portfolio.

DT has already commercially launched three network APIs under the MagentaBusiness API brand, with support from Vonage. The APIs are Quality on Demand, Device Status, and Device Location.

According to Arbitter, MagentaBusiness API “will be one of our growth areas of the future.”

“The new APIs will allow our customers to further digitize their core processes by using information as well as additional functionality from our network,” he said, noting that more announcements will be made at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

He added: “This is not only the start of Deutsche Telekom’s journey, but also that of the industry towards the de-composition of telco services. For me, this is as an important step as the introduction of cloud computing has been for the IT industry.”

DT also supports the Open Gateway initiative launched by the GSMA at MWC in 2023. Open Gateway aims to drive universal adoption of APIs designed to expose network capabilities, without the need for end-user developers to understand telecoms network technology or terminology. The APIs are being developed in the CAMARA open-source project in association with Linux Foundation, launched in February 2022.

DT is a user of TM Forum Open APIs, and recently secured ‘Running on ODA’ status.