Several companies are aiming to deploy direct-to-mobile satellite communication, but SpaceX and T-Mobile might have just leapfrogged them all. In a surprise announcement, the pair have revealed plans for smartphone support on SpaceX’s second-generation Starlink satellites. The service will be available in beta later next year with the aim to eliminate dead zones once and for all.
SpaceX already offers Starlink internet service as a home internet option, which requires a large, expensive dish. However, the new “Coverage Above and Beyond” service will connect directly to smartphones. Previously, SpaceX asked the FCC to allow it to use a block of underutilized 2GHz spectrum for direct-to-mobile communication, but T-Mobile has plenty of waves to spare. It’s sharing a slice of its existing mid-band PCS spectrum (around 1900MHz) with SpaceX to enable the service.
If you’re hoping for a Starlink-style high-speed data connection, think again. Coverage Above and Beyond will allow for between two and four megabits per cell zone, which is about 15 square miles for current Starlink service. That bandwidth would be divided between all users in that area, so the service will launch with support for SMS, MMS, and select messaging apps. The companies are not ruling out offering general data access in the future, but even having text-based communication in an area where there was zero coverage before could be a boon.
Note, connectivity will be 2 to 4 Mbits per cell zone, so will work great for texting & voice calls, but not high bandwidth
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 26, 2022
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says the new service will be dependent on v2 Starlink satellites, which will have much larger 5 to 6-meter antennas. The company has yet to launch any of these satellites because its Falcon 9 rocket isn’t big enough. For that, it’s going to need Starship, which has yet to complete an orbital test flight. The supposed timeline of late 2023 suggests that SpaceX plans to start launching Starship regularly in the next year.
However, Musk’s timelines are notoriously optimistic — we’re now about a year past his first deadline for sending people to Mars. That’s not the only unanswered question. While the more powerful antennas on Starlink v2 should be able to beam data down to a cell phone, it’s unclear how a phone is supposed to send data back up to a satellite. Even the best smartphone antennas have a range of just a few miles. They are not designed to project a signal hundreds of miles into space.
T-Mobile says its newer plans will have Coverage Above and Beyond included free of charge. However, some people on grandfathered plans might have to pay extra for satellite connectivity. More details will be available closer to launch.