T-Mobile and SpaceX have announced that Starlink satellites launched next year will be able to connect directly to the carrier’s phones via existing cellular links. The companies hope to enable global roaming wherever satellite coverage exists, and the service may be added to existing T-Mobile plans for free.
SpaceX’s Elon Musk and T-Mobile’s Mike Sievert announced the “technology alliance” at the space company’s Starbase in Texas.
“It’s a lot like putting a cell tower in the sky, only a lot more difficult,” Sievert says. “Your phone doesn’t really know it’s connecting for space. It will think it’s connected to a cell tower because that phone uses industry standard communication protocols and already has the spectrum built in, like the vast majority of phones in circulation today.”
While both executives emphasized the “depth” of the announcement, it’s not exactly unprecedented. In fact, this is exactly what Lynk showed last year with its still-working test satellite – the startup plans to provide emergency messages and alerts from a small constellation around the world. “It’s great that Elon is validating this as a service. It’s a huge need, a huge market and a huge validation,” Lynk founder Charles Miller told me after the announcement, also pointing out that they have patents and an FCC license, so we’ll see how that goes.)
Admittedly, Starlink has a greater presence in orbit, allowing it – theoretically – to provide a more frequent, high-bandwidth connection.
But theoretical is the word, as it appears this connectivity has not yet been demonstrated in orbit. (At least they didn’t say it was – I’ve reached out to T-Mobile for more information and will update if I hear anything.)
“We need to do more than reprogram the satellite; we make special antenna, the most advanced phased array antennas in the world. They need to pick up a very quiet signal from your cell phone,” Musk said at the event. “There’s quite a bit of complex hardware and software because it moves so fast – they travel overhead at 17,000 miles per hour. Normally a cell tower doesn’t travel at 17,000 miles per hour.”
Initially, the service will only enable text messaging and possibly messaging apps, although Sievert cautioned that “we haven’t really started working with other companies yet…it’s a bit of a technical issue where we’ll need help from the partner.” .” There would also likely be a significant delay of “half an hour or so” for the message to be sent or received.
However, Musk suggested that the antenna and service specifications might allow for multiple voice calls and real-time messages on time.
The service will only work with T-Mobile’s own licensed spectrum for now, meaning it’s something exclusive. However, both Sievert and Musk indicated that they would like to make arrangements with carriers in other countries that use compatible spectrum, offering a “reciprocal roaming” deal. That can also be determined.
The product and service itself is still being trialled, Sievert repeatedly noted, but you could hear more in the coming months as details get to the companies in question and the technology itself demonstrated.