Satellite phones are typically bulky and expensive, since they require specialized hardware for sending communications into Earth orbit. However, it may be possible in the near future for regular smartphones to connect to telecommunications satellites, using technology demonstrated by Ubiquitilink Inc.

During a briefing at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Ubiquitilink claimed that a collection of satellites in orbit (acting as cell towers) could give a low-bandwidth connection to any phone in the world. This is supposedly made possible by three components — the satellites have to be in a very low orbit (about 500km/310 miles above the surface), the RF beam used for transmissions has to be narrow, and the wavelength of transmissions has to be extended.

The company says that most phones made in the past decade have the hardware required to connect to these satellites, but software modifications are required. This is because most phones are built around the assumption that cell towers cannot be more than 30 km (18 miles) away, since the curvature of the Earth generally prevents signals from transmitting farther than that. Once Ubiquitilink modified a phone's wireless stacks to account for the longer distance, it successfully connected to a 2G satellite in orbit.

Charles Miller, founder of Ubiquitilink, plans for the company to become a worldwide roaming operator that mobile networks will pay to access. That's a long way off, though — at least a thousand satellites are reportedly required, but the service would work with fewer in limited passes. For example, customers might not have a signal for 55 minutes, then receive service for five minutes (when the satellites pass over your location). That's certainly better than no service at all.

"Nobody should ever die because the phone in their pocket doesn’t have signal," Miller said. “If you break down in the middle of Death Valley you should be able to text 911. Our vision is this is a universal service for emergency responders and global E-911 texting. We’re not going to charge for that."

Image credit: NASA Image and Video Library