Satellite internet provider Starlink, owned by SpaceX, has quietly started advertising its “Direct to Cell” service on its website, promising connectivity to existing LTE phones “wherever you can see the sky.”
No changes to hardware, firmware, or special apps are required, providing seamless access to text, voice, and data. Starlink will offer text services in 2024, followed by voice, data and IoT connectivity in 2025.
Subscribers will be able to use their existing LTE phone to tap into the satellite service, the obvious benefit being if you are out in the wilderness somewhere without terrestrial coverage.
Direct to Cell satellites will initially be launched on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and then Starship. On orbit the satellites will immediately connect over laser backhaul to the Starlink constellation to provide global connectivity.
Starlink satellites with Direct to Cell capability are loaded with an eNodeB modem that acts like a cellphone tower in space, ‘allowing network integration similar to a standard roaming partner.’
In August last year, at SpaceX’s launch facility, Elon Musk and T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert announced ‘Coverage Above and Beyond’ a joint project which promised to ‘bring cell phone connectivity everywhere.’
The project appears to have experienced a name change in the intervening time, and additional operator partners are now listed on the new webpage as Optus in Australia, Rogers in Canada, One NZ in New Zealand, KDDI in Japan, and Salt in Switzerland.
As was the case with that initial launch, the details of what level of connectivity might be possible using this method remains vague – there was no actual announcement or press release for service which might have yielded such specifics.
Peter Kibutu, Advanced Technology Lead – NTNs at TTP told Telecoms.com: “Starlink continues to set ambitious targets for its satellite network, however, its plans to deliver a direct-to-cell service requires scrutiny. Offering connectivity supported by unmodified 4G handsets might only result in low-bandwidth data and voice services, falling short of contemporary data demands and user experience.
“Delivering satellite connectivity akin to what we can experience today on 4G and 5G devices will require the 3GPP-compliant 5G NR NTN waveform, which is continuously optimised to maximise the performance of direct to handset services over LEO satellite constellations. Starlink has made it clear that it will continue to use its own proprietary technology which, while providing it with speed to market, could present roadblocks in years to come as it struggles to support high-performance connectivity services and use cases that will be readily available via other satellite operator’s 5G NTN networks. It will be interesting to see if Starlink will also be looking to develop services that leverage industry best practices and incorporate a wider ecosystem.”
There are no details on pricing or any other details, so we really don’t know exactly what Starlink Direct to Satellite service entails and how it compares to rival satellite connectivity ventures.