Starlink launches first “cellphone towers in space” for use with LTE phones

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A batch of Starlink satellites prior to launch
Enlarge / Starlink satellites with direct-to-cell capability.

SpaceX

SpaceX last night launched the first six Starlink satellites that will provide cellular transmissions for customers of T-Mobile and other carriers.

SpaceX said it launched 21 satellites overall, including “the first six Starlink satellites with Direct to Cell capabilities that enable mobile network operators around the world to provide seamless global access to texting, calling, and browsing wherever you may be on land, lakes, or coastal waters without changing hardware or firmware. The enhanced Starlink satellites have an advanced modem that acts as a cellphone tower in space, eliminating dead zones with network integration similar to a standard roaming partner,” the company said.

Besides T-Mobile in the US, several carriers in other countries have signed up to use the direct-to-cell satellites. SpaceX said the other carriers are Rogers in Canada, KDDI in Japan, Optus in Australia, One NZ in New Zealand, Salt in Switzerland, and Entel in Chile and Peru.

While SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wrote that the satellites will “allow for mobile phone connectivity anywhere on Earth,” he also described a significant bandwidth limit. “Note, this only supports ~7Mb per beam and the beams are very big, so while this is a great solution for locations with no cellular connectivity, it is not meaningfully competitive with existing terrestrial cellular networks,” Musk wrote.

Starlink’s direct-to-cell website says the service will provide text messaging only when it becomes available in 2024, with voice and data service beginning sometime in 2025. Starlink’s low Earth orbit satellites will work with standard LTE phones, unlike earlier services that required phones specifically built for satellite use. SpaceX’s direct-to-cell satellites will also connect with Internet of Things (IoT) devices in 2025, the company says.

T-Mobile plans field testing “soon”

T-Mobile said that field testing of Starlink satellites with the T-Mobile network will begin soon. “With well over half a million square miles of the US and vast stretches of ocean unreachable by terrestrial network coverage, due to terrain limitations, land-use restrictions and more, this new service aims to give customers a crucial additional layer of connectivity when and where they need it most,” T-Mobile said.

T-Mobile noted that yesterday’s SpaceX launch was “the first of many” to include Starlink satellites with cellular capabilities, but was vague on when exactly the different components of direct-to-cell service will become available to customers. “Initially, the service will begin with text messaging, with voice and data coverage to follow in the coming years,” T-Mobile said.

The SpaceX/T-Mobile partnership was announced in August 2022. At that time, Musk said it could provide beta service before the end of 2023. The companies said in March 2023 that they were still planning to test the service before the end of the year, but it later became clear that it wouldn’t happen until 2024.

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