Starlink’s Direct to Cell service for existing LTE phones “wherever you can see the sky”

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.

Source:  Starlink

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 CanadaOne 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 “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.




2 thoughts on “Starlink’s Direct to Cell service for existing LTE phones “wherever you can see the sky”

  1. AT&T and the Rural Wireless Association ‘raise a series of baseless procedural claims,’ according to SpaceX. The company is urging the FCC to approve its latest request so that it can offer satellite connections to T-Mobile’s unconnected customers.

    “AT&T and Dish-mouthpiece the Rural Wireless Association have seemingly coordinated a desperate, 11th-hour campaign,” the company told the FCC in a new filing. “AT&T and RWA raise a series of baseless procedural claims while offering no substantive reason to deny the application.”

    The application at the heart of the issue is one that SpaceX filed at the FCC earlier this month. The company is asking the agency for “Special Temporary Authority” starting in December to launch and test the company’s direct-to-cell services via SpaceX’s Gen2 satellites.

  2. The cellular-to-satellite market, which started off hot in late 2022, is currently in a bit of a transition. In November Qualcomm announced it was ending its partnership with Iridium Communications in which the two companies planned to deliver direct-to-device (D2D) service to Android smartphones. Qualcomm said its decision was due to smartphone makers preferring standards-based solutions instead of the proprietary solution that it had developed with Iridium.

    But analysts say Qualcomm’s departure from this area shouldn’t be viewed as a failure for the cell-to-sat market, but instead be chalked up to a business model problem because the partnership did not provide a role for the mobile network operator.

    Despite Qualcomm’s exit from the market, analyst firm NSR, an Analysys Mason company, remains bullish on the satellite D2D area, projecting that it will generate a $137 billion cumulative service revenue opportunity between 2022 and 2032.

    Mobile operator role is key

    In a research note, Lluc Palerm Serra with NSR, said that the biggest challenge to success in this area if aligning the interests of all the actors in the satellite D2D value chain. “The model proposed by Qualcomm did not consider a role for the mobile network operators (MNOs),” Serra said. “MNOs’ relationships with end users mean that MNOs must play a major role in order for the model to scale,” he added.

    Of course, some D2D players do have mobile operator agreements including AST SpaceMobile, which is working with 40 operators including AT&T; Lynk Global, which says it has multiple mobile operator agreements; and SpaceX’s Starlink, which is collaborating with T-Mobile in the U.S. and a handful of other operators globally.

    NSR’s Serra said that because these players have MNO partnerships, they may be able to ramp up their services faster and take advantage of backward-compatibility with existing phones.

    Lynk has developed a technology that makes it possible to connect any cellular device operating today to its satellite network because it can fool the cellular device into thinking that the satellite is a nearby tower. The company received a boost in mid-December when special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) Slam Corp., led by former pro baseball player Alex Rodriguez, announced plans to merge with the company and form a group that they expected to be valued at $800 million.

    Lynk has successfully launched three commercial satellites and has started operating in four countries. The company is preparing to launch two more small satellites early this year and needs more funding if it wants to ultimately have 5,000 LEO satellites so it can provide continuous services around the world.

    However, just two weeks after announcing its deal with Slam Corp., SpaceNews reported that Slam has to give $176 million back to investors that are opting to redeem shares rather than have a potential stake in Lynk. That means that Slam now has fewer funds to fuel Lynk’s expansion.

    Meanwhile, AST SpaceMobile, which is similar to Lynk, because it can connect directly to existing smartphones and deliver its service through wholesale agreements with mobile network operators, is planning to launch its first five satellites in the first quarter. The company said that it also plans to launch its commercial service this year, according to Abel Avellan, CEO of AST SpaceMobile.

    And finally, SpaceX, which has partnered with T-Mobile, Rogers and a few other operators to deliver D2D service, is planning to launch its first six Starlink satellites with direct-to-cell capabilities in early January.

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