SpaceX, T-Mobile To Connect Mobile Phones To Satellites

Elon Musk’s SpaceX and American mobile operator T-Mobile US plan to expand mobile phone coverage in the United States – via the use of Starlink satellites.

The two companies announced the plan to expand mobile coverage and eliminate pesky not-spots on Thursday, with the new service aiming to connect the vast majority of smartphones already on T-Mobile’s network to Starlink satellites.

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.

Population coverage

Indeed, it should be noted that population dense areas of America already tend to have good 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. The only communications option in these areas is to use a sat phone.

Into this comes the news that T-Mobile US is teaming up with SpaceX and will use its Starlink satellite constellation to provide mobile users with network access in parts of the United States with no cell coverage.

The development with SpaceX is hugely significant, as it removes the need for the American mobile operator to install its own mobile towers, or use the towers of its rival mobile operators in areas where it has no mobile tower presence.

Launch event

The development was announced by SpaceX’s Chief Engineer Elon Musk and T-Mobile’s CEO and President Mike Sievert, at a launch event set against a backdrop of huge SpaceX rockets.

The two firms at the launch estimated that despite ground-based LTE and 5G coverage in the US, more than 20 percent of the United States land area and 90 percent of the Earth remain uncovered by mobile signals.

Indeed the firms estimate that well over half a million square miles of the US, in addition to vast stretches of ocean, are untouched by cell signals from any provider.

To provide this service, the companies will create a new network, broadcast from Starlink’s satellites using T-Mobile’s mid-band spectrum nationwide.

Most smartphones 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.

Afterwards, the companies plan to pursue the addition of voice and data coverage.

No more dead zones

“We’ve always thought differently about what it means to keep customers connected, and that’s why we’re working with the best to deliver coverage above and beyond anything customers have ever seen before,” said Mike Sievert, CEO of T-Mobile.

“More than just a groundbreaking alliance, this represents two industry-shaking innovators challenging the old ways of doing things to create something entirely new that will further connect customers and scare competitors,” said Sievert.

“The important thing about this is that it means there are no dead zones anywhere in the world for your cell phone,” said Elon Musk. “We’re incredibly excited to do this with T-Mobile.”

With this technology, T-Mobile is planning to give customers text coverage practically everywhere in the continental US, Hawaii, parts of Alaska, Puerto Rico and territorial waters, even outside the signal of T-Mobile’s network starting with a beta in select areas by the end of next year after SpaceX’s planned satellite launches.

SpaceX has launched nearly 3,000 low-Earth-orbiting Starlink satellites since 2019, and competes against the likes of OneWeb and Amazon.com’s Project Kuiper.

It is understood that the next generation of Starlink satellites, the first of which are planned to launch on SpaceX’s Starship rocket when its development has been finished, will have larger antennae that will allow connectivity directly to mobile phones on the T-mobile network, Musk reportedly said.

“We are constructing special antenna. … They are actually very big antenna that are extremely advanced,” he said. “The important thing is you will not need to get a new phone. The phone you currently have will work.”

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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