T-Mobile and SpaceX announced that Starlink satellites launched next year will be able to connect directly to carrier phones over existing cellular bands. The companies hope to enable global roaming anywhere there is satellite coverage, and the service could potentially be added for free to existing T-Mobile plans.
SpaceX’s Elon Musk and T-Mobile’s Mike Siewert 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 harder,” Sievert said. “Your phone doesn’t actually know it’s connecting for a location. It will think it’s connected to a cell tower because this phone uses industry standard communication protocols and has spectrum already built in, as the vast majority of phones in circulation today do.
It’s true exactly what Lynk demonstrated last year, focused on delivering emergency messages available anywhere from a handful of satellites. But it must be acknowledged that Starlink has a greater presence in orbit, allowing it – in theory – to provide a more frequent high-bandwidth connection.
But the word is theoretical because it appears that this connectivity has not yet been demonstrated in orbit. (At least they didn’t say it was – I’ve reached out to T-Mobile to find out more and will update if I hear back.)
“We have to do more than reprogram the satellite, we make a special antenna, the most advanced phased array antenna in the world. They have to pick up a very quiet signal from your cell phone,” Musk said at the event. “it has some pretty complex hardware and software because it’s moving so fast — they’re going overhead at 27,000 miles an hour. Normally, a cell phone tower does not move at 27,000 miles per hour.
Initially, the service will only enable text messaging and possibly messaging apps, though Sievert cautioned that “we haven’t actually started working with other companies … it’s a bit of a technical issue that we need help with from the partner.” There will also likely be a significant delay of “half an hour or so” until the message is sent or received.
However, Musk suggested that the antenna and service specification could potentially allow for multiple voice calls and real-time messaging over time.
The service will only work with T-Mobile’s own licensed spectrum for now, meaning it’s something of an exclusive. However, both Siewert and Musk indicated they would like to find agreements with providers in other countries using compatible spectrum, proposing a “reciprocal roaming” deal. This also needs to be determined.
The product and service itself are still in the works, Siewert has repeatedly noted, but you can expect to hear more in the coming months as details emerge from the companies in question and the technology itself is demonstrated.