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Satellite Cell Service: What’s Coming

T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert on August 25 announced a partnership with SpaceX to use Starlink satellites to expand the carrier’s coverage. (Photo: SpaceX)

T-Mobile and Starlink made a joint announcement recently about an arrangement where Starlink will enable voice and texting capabilities to T-Mobile cellphones by the end of 2023. This is a service that would work with existing cell phones and would supposedly kick in when a phone can’t find a signal from a cell tower. Starlink said the technology would be enabled by new satellites that have significantly larger antennae than the current satellites in the constellation. In the press release, Elon Musk touted this as being able to reach people lost in the wilderness, but the much bigger use will be to fill in cellular coverage in rural areas for T-Mobile.

While the two companies made a big splashy announcement about the arrangement, they are late to the game as other industry players already have similar plans underway.

AST SpaceMobile has been working on deploying satellites explicitly aimed at the cellular market. The company plans to launch its first five satellites in 2024. The company’s business plan is to launch fairly large satellites weighing over 3,300 pounds to create a constellation dedicated to cellular coverage. The company has already formed partnerships with over 25 mobile operators worldwide, including the giant cellular company Vodaphone.

Lynk is taking a different approach and will launch small satellites around the size of a pizza box. The company has one test satellite in orbit with another schedule this December. The company plans to have 50 satellites in orbit by the end of 2023. Lynk already has 14 commercial agreements in place and will support large corporations and governments as well as mobile providers.

Just recently, Apple announced that it would offer a texting service for those lost in the wilderness in a partnership with Globalstar. This service will be text only and will be exceedingly slow, but it will supposedly work for folks who have the latest iPhone and can also point the phone directly at the satellite. There will be an app that will tell a user where the satellite can be found.

All of these plans raise a lot of questions that we won’t get answered until somebody has a working satellite product. For example, could somebody inside a vehicle connect to a satellite? I have no problem connecting to the Sirius XM satellite service, so this might not be a problem. Will these connections somehow roam and connect back to cellular carriers when the user is in reach of a cell tower? That would be really complicated, and my guess is that this won’t work. Mike Sievert, the CEO of T-Mobile, said this project is like putting a cell site in the sky, but much harder—and I believe him. I’ve been trying to picture how the satellites will pick out the right calls because filtering through the many billions of cellphone calls to find the right ones sounds like a huge data processing challenge.

The service would certainly be a boon to somebody lost in the woods, but this is a much-needed service for a lot of people. My consulting firm does surveys, and it’s not unusual to find rural counties today where 30% or more of homes say they have no cellular coverage at their homes. The national coverage maps of the big cellular companies are a joke in many rural places.

T-Mobile and Starlink said that these connections would be only for voice calls and texting at first but that using cellular data might be on the horizon. That would be a significant accomplishment since a receiver, many times larger than a cell phone, is needed today to communicate with a satellite.

The real potential for this product is not in the U.S. and Europe, where a large percentage of folks can connect today to cellular networks. The real market is the many parts of the world where modern cellular towers are a rarity. Most Americans probably don’t understand or appreciate that there is still a lot of the world where folks are not connected, or perhaps only connected through one universal connection that is shared by a whole community.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting

Dawson has worked in the telecom industry since 1978 and has both a consulting and operational background. He and CCG specialize in helping clients launch new broadband markets, develop new products, and finance new ventures.

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