T-Mobile US Confirms SpaceX Satellite ‘Direct to Cell’ Launch

American mobile operator T-Mobile US has confirmed that its partner, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has launched the first Starlink satellites that should expand mobile phone coverage in the United States.

T-Mobile US announced SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket has now launched the first set of Starlink satellites with Direct to Cell capabilities.

This development comes after the two firms in August 2022 had announced a plan to expand mobile coverage and eliminate mobile not-spots (mobile dead zones) in the United States. The new service aims to connect the vast majority of smartphones already on T-Mobile’s network to Starlink satellites.

SpaceX’s Chief Engineer Elon Musk and T-Mobile’s CEO Mike Sievert

Satellite launch

T-Mobile already claims to have 99 percent LTE/4G coverage (via its and other networks) in the US, although its own network is said to offer 62 percent nationwide coverage.

AT&T has 68 percent coverage, and Verizon has 70 percent. Sprint only has 30 percent coverage with its network.

Indeed, it should be noted that population dense areas of America already tend to have good mobile coverage by most operators.

That said, there are places in the US with very low population density, which can have limited or no mobile phone service (aka not spots or dead zones). The only communications option in these areas is to use a sat phone.

Back in 2022 T-Mobile US said it was teaming up with SpaceX and would use its Starlink satellite constellation to provide mobile users with network access in parts of the United States with no cell coverage.

Now over 17 months later, T-Mobile said on Wednesday that the Starlink satellites featuring Direct to Cell technology are in low-Earth orbit, which means that field testing can soon begin on the new service.

“Our mission is to be the best in the world at connecting customers to their world and today is another step forward in keeping our customers connected even in the most remote locations for added peace of mind when they need it most,” said Mike Katz, President of Marketing, Strategy and Products, T-Mobile.

“Today’s launch is a pivotal moment for this groundbreaking alliance with SpaceX and our global partners around the world, as we work to make dead zones a thing of the past,” said Katz.

Rural/ocean coverage

T-Mobile US pointed out that there is well over half a million square miles of the US and vast stretches of ocean unreachable by terrestrial network coverage, due to terrain limitations, land-use restrictions and more.

It said this new service aims to give customers a crucial additional layer of connectivity when and where they need it most.

It could spell the end of the need for expensive sat phones.

The first Starlink satellite launches that include Direct to Cell capabilities, will begin with text messaging, with voice and data coverage to follow in the coming years.

“The launch of these first Direct to Cell satellites is an exciting milestone for SpaceX to demonstrate our technology,” said Dr. Sara Spangelo, Sr. Director of Satellite Engineering. “We look forward to rapidly scaling up Direct to Cell with our partner operators around the world and rolling out messaging service for T-Mobile customers!”

Global satellite roaming

T-Mobile and SpaceX said they share a vision is to provide truly universal coverage and last year, they issued an open invitation to mobile operators worldwide to expand globally with reciprocal roaming.

As of today, five operators are onboard to launch Direct to Cell technology including KDDI (Japan), Optus (Australia), One NZ (New Zealand), Rogers (Canada) and others that were not named.

Both firms said the invitation still stands for any operator with the shared goal of global connectivity to join.

Details can be found here.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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