T-Mobile & SpaceX Have Now More Than 100 Direct-to-Cell Satellites in Orbit, Aiming to Launch This Fall

6th Jun 2024
T-Mobile & SpaceX Have Now More Than 100 Direct-to-Cell Satellites in Orbit, Aiming to Launch This Fall

SpaceX’s low-orbit Starlink satellites will be used to provide coverage in areas where T-Mobile’s ground infrastructure is not available. Additional equipment and bulky satellite phones are no longer necessary – users will be able to connect to the satellites directly from their smartphones across the United States.

SpaceX to provide Direct-to-Cell technology for T-Mobile

In August 2022, T-Mobile and SpaceX announced their plans to expand cellular service in the US using low-orbit satellites. The service aims to provide direct-to-cell services in hard-to-reach and underserved areas such as national parks, uninhabited areas such as deserts and mountain ranges, and even territorial waters. Traditional land-based cell towers cannot cover most of these regions.

SpaceX claims guaranteed satellite coverage for virtually the entire continental US, Hawaii, parts of Alaska, Puerto Rico, and territorial waters.

The launch timeline was included in one of SpaceX’s recent filings with the FCC: “SpaceX … looks forward to launching commercial direct-to-cellular service in the United States this fall,” the company wrote.

On 3 July, SpaceX successfully launched 20 Starlink satellites, including 13 direct-to-cell satellites, totaling more than 100 direct-to-cell satellites in orbit. 

To achieve this, the company plans to put into orbit about 800 second-generation Starlink satellites with antennas measuring approximately 25 square meters, capable of connecting directly to the cellular network. This size of antennas is because they need to pick up a weak signal from a user’s smartphone while the satellite itself orbits at 17,000 miles per hour.

How does Direct-to-cell service work?

The new network will use T-Mobile’s 1900 MHz mid-frequency spectrum, which is part of the 4G and now 5G network, to transmit data. This requires a new satellite technology called Direct-to-Cell capabilities. At this point, the new method is still being tested.

Data speeds will initially be limited to 2 to 4 Mbps but should increase over time. That’s enough for text messages and possibly voice calls, but nothing more than that. According to T-Mobile’s press release, the satellite connection will allow text messaging (including SMS and MMS) and access to some messaging apps. The company also hopes to add voice, Internet of Things (IoT) and data services in the future.

For now, sending a text message over a satellite cellular network can take up to half an hour. You need to be in view of the sky, though, as light obstacles such as dense tree crowns will increase the delay.
It should be noted that the launch of the service has already been delayed several times. Perhaps because of this, T-Mobile representatives have recently refrained from public statements and comments to journalists.

direct to cell how it works
Credit: SpaceX

Although more than 50 satellites with the necessary technology are already in space, the service has still not been fully launched. Many of the delays have been related to FCC approval.

Another reason is due to technological challenges that SpaceX can’t yet overcome. According to their CEO, Elon Musk, the Starlink V2 satellites are too big to fit on the Falcon 9 used to launch the current generation of Starlink. And Starship, an ultra-heavy spacecraft capable of handling the task of launching a constellation of satellites into low Earth orbit, is still under development.

 How much will it cost for T-Mobile users?

As for the cost of the service, T-Mobile promises to include it for free on its ‘most popular data plans.  However, customers with ‘cheaper’ plans will have to pay an additional monthly subscription fee.
This will come as an unpleasant surprise to incumbent players in the market. Since the existing satellite options are not cheap. Garmin inReach subscription plans start at $14.95 for unlimited SOS and just 10 text messages.

Not only T-Mobile

The successful partnership between T-Mobile and SpaceX will make other companies, such as AST SpaceMobile and Lynk Global, who are also developing satellite technology for mobile phone communications but have yet to achieve impressive results.

Separately, Apple is worth mentioning. Its line of iPhone 14 and iPhone 15 models also uses satellite communication in partnership with Globalstar, but only in an emergency, when the phone has no mobile signal at all. The new iPhone models can connect to a low-orbit satellite and send an SOS message.

 Android, of course, won’t be far behind either, as many OEMs have already promised to offer satellite communication support.

While T-Mobile was singled out in a recent TIME TOP 100 ranking of influential companies for its collaboration with SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company is actively building a partner network of mobile operators using direct-to-cell technology, creating global mutual access to satellite communications around the world. To date, according to the SpaceX website, this network already includes several mobile operators from different countries: T-MOBILE (USA), OPTUS (AUSTRALIA), ROGERS (CANADA), ONE NZ (NEW ZEALANDIA), KDDI (JAPAN), SALT (SWEDEN), ENTEL (CHILE), ENTEL (PERU).

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