European Space Agency

Modular handsets and satellite communications


In 2013, a Dutch designer promoted on various social media the concept of a modular phone, Phonebloks.  A number of handset manufacturers, such as Motorola, bought into this, or were already working on such a concept.

Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group announced around that time that they were also working on a modular phone, a.k.a. project ARA.  In the meantime this Google project has been discontinued.

The study investigated whether one could make a small satcom module which you stick into supposedly $50 handset.

A number of possible services were also investigated, such as LTE-M eMBMS broadcast services straight from satellite to the handset, or personal distress beacon as a module integrated in the handset.


From technical perspective there are still a lot of challenges for using satellite modules in a module handset. Existing satellite modems are way too large, consume too much power and produce too much heat to fit into an endoskeleton.

Capacity estimation of the battery for the largest modular handset is significantly lower than the capacity of typical high end cellular handset.

With regards to the satellite antenna integration there are currently no connectors for external antenna – and will not be supported by endo skeleton. A backup solution might be the use of small integrated antennas –  mechanical support is feasible, but the performance is limited

System Architecture

The satellite modem itself may be integrated to two separate Google Ara 2x2 (40mm x 40mm) design blocks, but the power management and battery management capabilities defined by Google Ara are limiting actual implementation (5W power feed is the absolute maximum rating for a single module connector).

Is was concluded that for some services a module integrated into a modular handset would be feasible -  however there are severe limitations in terms of power dissipation and antenna accommodation. A dedicated small module – connected by Bluetooth or Wifi – might be a better option

Current status

The project has been completed in 2015.

Status date

Wednesday, December 2, 2020 - 09:38