Musk’s SpaceX and T-Mobile plan to connect mobile phones to LEO satellites in 2023

During a live media event Thursday afternoon, T-Mobile’s Mike Sievert and SpaceX’s Elon Musk announced a new partnership that’s intended to connect T-Mobile sold phones to a new constellation of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites. The result, according to the companies, will be the elimination of all cellular dead zones around the U.S.

“It’s a lot like putting a cellular tower in the sky,” Sievert said, adding that the “vast majority” of T-Mobile’s existing phones would be supported by the service. Meaning, customers will not need to purchase new phones in order to connect them to Starlink’s second-generation satellites.

Sievert said that T-Mobile expects to offer the service for no additional charge on its more expensive plans. For customers on its cheaper plans, he said they may need to pay an additional monthly charge in order to be able to access satellite coverage.

Starlink’s satellites will use T-Mobile’s mid-band spectrum to create a new network. Most phones used by the company’s customers will be compatible with the new service, which will start with texting services in a beta phase beginning by the end of next year.  The companies did not say when it might launch commercially.

T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert at a joint news conference at Space X facility in Brownsville, TX

REUTERS/Adrees Latif

SpaceX has launched nearly 3,000 low-Earth-orbiting (LEO) Starlink satellites since 2019, handily outpacing rivals OneWeb and Amazon.com Inc’s Project Kuiper.  Starlink recently suffered a major setback when the FCC rejected the company’s application for almost $900 million in government subsidies. The agency ruled that Starlink’s service likely wouldn’t be able to meet the agency’s speed and service requirements.

SpaceX’s next-generation Starlink satellites, the first of which are planned to launch on SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket whenever it is fully developed, will have larger antennae that will allow connectivity directly to mobile phones on the T-mobile network, Musk said.

Meanwhile, U.S telecom firms are in a race to build up the mid-band portion of their 5G networks to catch up with T-Mobile, which bagged a chunky 2.5 GHz of mid-band spectrum thanks to a buyout of rival Sprint.

Mid-band or C-Band has proven to be perfect for 5G, as it provides a good balance of capacity and coverage.  T-Mobile said it aims to pursue voice and data coverage after the texting services beta phase.

Others in the Mix:

Satellite communications firm AST SpaceMobile Inc is also building a global cellular broadband network in space that will operate with mobile devices without the need for additional hardware.  AST SpaceMobile is relying on SpaceX’s rockets to get its satellites into orbit, having pivoted away from a plan to use Russian rockets after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Elon [Musk] and Mike [Sievert, of T-Mobile] helped the world focus attention on the huge market opportunity for SpaceMobile, the only planned space-based cellular broadband network,” AST SpaceMobile CEO Abel Avellan wrote on LinkedIn yesterday. “BlueWalker 3 … is scheduled for launch within weeks!”

Meanwhile, Verizon and AT&T each have their own satellite plans: Verizon plans to use Amazon’s planned Project Kuiper satellites to connect its rural cell towers to the Internet, and AT&T is planning a similar setup with OneWeb’s own growing constellation of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.

In 2020, AT&T agreed to let startup AST SpaceMobile use its Band 5 spectrum to test transmissions from its BlueWalker 1 satellite to devices on the ground. AST SpaceMobile is now hoping to launch its new BlueWalker 3 prototype later next month. However, as reported by SpaceNews, supply chain issues delayed the launch of AST SpaceMobile’s first operational satellite by about six months, to late 2023.

AST SpaceMobile’s main rival, Lynk, already has one operational satellite in orbit for phone connections. As noted by Ars Technica, the company is hoping to receive FCC approval to offer satellite-to-phone services across 35 countries by the end of this year.

“Elon said it’s hard, and it’s only been done in the lab, but Lynk has done it in space already,” Lynk’s Charles Miller told the publication yesterday. “We’re the only company in the world that has done that.”

Lynk hasn’t yet announced an agreement with a major U.S. network operator, though it has agreements with a number of international operators.  Lynk tested its services in the U.S. with Smith Bagley, a tiny wireless network operator offering services under the Cellular One brand in East Arizona.

“There are significant regulatory hurdles to clear, as the FCC is reviewing SpaceX’s request to launch a constellation of 30,000 Gen2 satellites, while other LEO proposals including Amazon’s Project Kuiper (with whom Verizon is collaborating) and AST SpaceMobile (financial backing from Vodafone and a commercial agreement with AT&T) are also working DC as well as international agencies to put some rules in place for this latest chapter of the Space Race,” Raymond James analysts wrote in a note to investors.

References:

https://www.reuters.com/business/media-telecom/elon-musks-spacex-t-mobile-us-plan-boost-cellular-coverage-space-2022-08-26/

https://www.lightreading.com/satellite/t-mobile-and-spacex-want-to-connect-regular-phones-to-satellites/d/d-id/779964?

https://www.lightreading.com/satellite/did-elon-musk-just-upstage-tim-cooks-big-iphone-14-surprise/a/d-id/779976?

UPDATE:  Apple iPhone 14 text messages via Globalstar LEO satellites starting Nov 2022:

Emergency SOS: Apple iPhones to be able to send/receive texts via Globalstar LEO satellites in November 2022

2 thoughts on “Musk’s SpaceX and T-Mobile plan to connect mobile phones to LEO satellites in 2023

  1. Indeed, it is a space race. Good summary, Alan, of the various other initiatives in this space (pun intended).

    Tim Farrar has an interesting analysis suggesting that Apple’s upcoming announcement next month may be around a partnership with Globalstar to provide messaging via Globalstar’s satellite network.

    https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1562967341347901440.html

    SpaceX/T-Mobile’s initial service reminds me of what Higher Ground is doing with its Sat Paq service. Unfortunately for Higher Ground, it looks like the FCC effectively took away their spectrum and their service will shut down by Sept 2023; just in time for T-Mobile/SpaceX.

    https://www.viodi.tv/2019/02/13/satellite-texting-without-a-subscription-ces2019/

  2. T-Mobile spent $304 million in FCC auction 108, and it won 90% of all the licenses sold or 7,156 of the 7,872 total licenses that received winning bids. The auction offered up a total of 8,017 licenses in mostly rural locations around the country, but not all of those licenses received winning bids.

    “With most of the available spectrum in the 2.5GHz band located in rural areas, this auction provides vital spectrum resources to support wireless services in rural communities,” according to the FCC.

    T-Mobile was widely expected to bid heavily in the auction, considering it is the only big wireless network operator that uses the 2.5GHz spectrum band. Moreover, other operators like Verizon, AT&T and Dish Network have spent heavily in other FCC spectrum auctions, leaving them with little financial firepower to chase 2.5GHz spectrum.

    However, the FCC’s 2.5GHz auction generated far less interest among bidders than most analysts had expected. Before the auction started in late July, estimates ranged from $1 billion to $5 billion in total bids. But when the auction ended earlier this week, it generated just $428 million in total bids. Thus, T-Mobile accounted for roughly 71% of all spending in the auction.

    Other big spenders in the auction include PTI Pacifica ($18 million); TeleGuam Holding ($17 million); and Evergy Kansas Central ($13 million).

    T-Mobile will undoubtedly use its auction winnings to expand the rural growth strategy it laid out in recent years.

    This is just the latest batch of spectrum licenses T-Mobile has purchased in recent years for its 5G network. Aside from the vast 2.5GHz holdings it acquired via its $26 billion purchase of Sprint in 2020, T-Mobile also spent around $10 billion in the FCC’s recent C-band auction, $3 billion in the FCC’s 3.45GHz auction earlier this year and $3.5 billion for 600MHz spectrum licenses from Columbia Capital in a deal announced last month.

    https://www.lightreading.com/5g/the-results-are-in-t-mobile-dominates-fccs-25ghz-auction/d/d-id/780119?

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