Telstra, Australia’s #1 telco, will partner with SpaceX’s Starlink to provide phone and broadband services to rural Australia using Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites. Telstra said it planned to offer the new services before year’s end according to a blog post. It also promises higher download speeds compared to copper-based ADSL internet access.
Starlink, operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX (private company). has built a fast-growing network of more than 3,500 satellites in Low-Earth Orbit that can provide connectivity in remote areas.
“Telstra will be able to provide home phone service and Starlink broadband services to Aussies as a bundle offer, as well as local tech support and the option of professional installation,” the telco said in the same blogpost. “This agreement also provides connectivity options for our business customers, with a higher bandwidth business option available in areas without fixed and mobile connectivity. The business offer will be available to purchase from Telstra both locally and in select countries overseas.”
Using LEO satellites will bring new capabilities to commercial satellite services in Australia, including faster communications. Signal distances travelled are shorter, as LEO satellites are vastly closer to earth compared to geostationary satellites at around 35,000 km above earth. It requires less power for an earthbound device to transmit to a satellite and there’s a reduced latency (delay) in transmission time.
Telstra said in its blog post:
One of the benefits of LEO satellites are that they are much closer than geostationary satellites to Earth with multiple satellites that are a part of a “constellation”, allowing them to send and receive signals much faster. As well as offering great data throughput, the proximity of these satellites reduces latency making them a great and more consistent option for services that need low latency, like voice and video calls.
The latency, download speeds and general experience in most circumstances will be far superior to copper-based ADSL and be better suited for most modern connectivity needs. Our team has been testing out in the field Starlink’s service and how we can best offer it to customers, including evolving our own modem specifically to support Starlink connectivity and Aussie households. We’re extremely excited to show you what this looks like later in the year.
Partnerships between telcos and LEO satellite providers will allow consumers to make satellite-connected calls using their regular smartphone from almost anywhere on the planet, whether there is a local cellular network or not. In Australia, mobile calls and even video calls will be possible on regular smartphones operating in remote and rural regions of Australia.
At Mobile World Congress held in Barcelona in March 2023, Telstra told ChannelNews it was working on adding LEO satellite audio and video calls to its network. Taiwanese chip designer MediaTek demonstrated the chips that phones would use for LEO satellite communications at the same conference.
UK phone maker Bullitt Group announced it was working with Motorola to bring satellite texting to regular phones in Australia this year, with video calling via LEO satellites to come within another two years. Their texting service has already rolled out in Europe and the US.
Telstra’s move is in line with emerging partnerships between telcos and satellite providers in the US, with T-Mobile forging a deal with Starlink and AT&T with AST SpaceMobile. T-Mobile and Starlink began testing their service in March.
Optus is yet to announce any service involving LEO satellite services locally, although it has been conducting tests. In November last year, Optus demonstrated satellite direct-to-mobile calls in partnership with LEO satellite provider Lynk.
Vodafone meanwhile has launched LEO satellite trials in Turkey with local operator partner SatCo.
It is a major coup for Telstra to be first among Australia-based Telcos to announce a specific service, however longer term, LEO satellites will allow Optus and Vodafone to be more formidable competition in rural and regional Australia, as LEO satellites will give them a reach that they don’t enjoy due to their lack of ground-based cellular infrastructure compared to Telstra.
Further, the Australian telco market will be opening up to increased international competition if offshore telcos want to join in. In March, ChannelNews reported that Amazon was gearing to take on the NBN with a fast satellite-based internet service.
Nevertheless LEO satellites are a fillip for Telstra in light of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) decision late last year to veto a deal between Telstra and TPG Telecom to consolidate their presence in rural and fringe areas of the country through an infrastructure and service swap.
The coming of LEO satellite services also will be a test for the ACCC. To what extent does its jurisdiction cover LEO-satellite-based communications, particularly when it involves telecommunication services provided by foreign companies from space?