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Starlink Promising Satellite Cellular Service: A Possible Game-Changer for Remote Areas and Outdoor Enthusiasts

Photo: Starlink

Starlink recently launched a new webpage that advertises the future ability to deliver text, voice, and data to 4G cell phones via satellite.

The texting service is supposed to be available in 2024, with voice and data coming in 2025. The service will require a user to have a view of the open sky. I would also guess that a user must be stationary and not in a moving vehicle. The service will likely be aimed at people who spend much time outdoors, in places out of reach of cell towers. There is no talk yet about price, but this seems like a premium service and will probably be priced accordingly.

T-Mobile’s service will be able to connect through any of its many satellites, and reports have said that speeds will be relatively slow, at perhaps only a few Mbps.

Starlink says that service users can connect to users in cellular networks participating in the program. The initial list of network partners includes T-Mobile in the U.S., Rogers in Canada, Optus in Australia, One NZ in New Zealand, Kodi in Japan, and SALT in Switzerland.

Apple’s 911 Lifeline & AT&T

There is already an early version of satellite texting. Apple provides texting to 911 via satellite to those using an Apple 14 or newer iPhone. The text connection to 911 is slow and takes about 15 seconds to complete a transaction. The service allows very limited follow-up texts between public safety and the person initiating the 911 call. Apple is providing this service for free today but will eventually likely charge for using it.

AT&T claims to have made the first broadband connection with an unmodified cell phone and a satellite in September. The company used AT&T’s 5G spectrum and a Samsung Galaxy S22 to connect a caller from a dead cellular zone in Maui, Hawaii, to one in Madrid, Spain. This test was done in conjunction with AST SpaceMobile. The first test achieved a download speed to the phone in Maui of 10 Mbps, but AST has subsequently been able to boost the speed to 14 Mbps. AST plans to launch five BlueBird satellites in the first quarter of 2024 to support the cellular satellite effort.

Service Quality

It’s unlikely that any of these services will compete with mainstream cell phone connectivity. The speeds will be slower, and the satellite constellations will not be equipped to process the amount of data associated with normal cellphone service. There is no need to pay extra to use a satellite connection for anybody in reach of a cell tower or a WiFi connection.

The Market Gap

I’m not sure if most people appreciate how much of the land mass of the U.S. has little or no cell service. Practically every county I’ve worked in has large dead cellular zones. Providing even rudimentary cell coverage in remote areas is a valuable new service for the many people who work in remote places. I can picture that farmers, park rangers, and anybody who spends a lot of time in unconnected areas will want this service as soon as it is available. I envision the satellite companies and cellular companies generating good revenue while filling this needed market niche.

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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100x The Distance Requires 400x the TX Power Bill Butkevich  –  Oct 24, 2023 12:01 PM

Terrestrial cell phone towers are around 3 - 4 miles apart, satellites in low earth orbit are around 100x this distance way from the ground. In order for a consumer cell phone to reach this satellite, they’ll have to output approximately 400x the power they use to connection to these present local ground stations.  At this power output rate, they’ll either use up their battery reserve very quickly - and/or fry/radiate their users head. More likely any such “cell phone to satellite” connection will require an intermediary device (plugged into a power wall socket) the same as we see today via Starlink ground stations…  or a specially designed mobile/hand unit (same as todays “satellite phones”) that don’t resemble common cell phone’s very closely.

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