They promise universal text coverage in the U.S. in late 2023, with voice to follow
T-Mobile US and satellite broadband company Starlink announced this week a partnership that sees SpaceX’s Starlink using T-Mobile mid-band spectrum to deliver ubiquitous satellite-based text messaging capabilities for T-Mobile customers. The heads of both companies announced the deal late Thursday amidst the backdrop of SpaceX’s launch facilities in Boca Chica, Texas, near Brownsville.
Starlink operates a small but growing constellation of low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites which provide ground-based customers with high-speed Internet access using terminals and phased array antennas. That’s Starlink version 1. Starlink V2 will be a new 5G network using a section of T-Mobile US’ midband PCS spectrum, broadcast using Starlink satellites and compatible with existing 5G smartphones, the companies said.
“We need to do more than simply reprogram the [existing Starlink] satellites,” said Elon Musk, in his role as SpaceX chief engineer. In fact, it’ll require a new fleet of satellites to be deployed to work. He said the new satellites will sport new hardware and software to enable the new functionality.
“We’re constructing special antennas … the most advanced phased array antennas in the world, we think. The antennas have to be very advanced, because they pick up very quiet signals from your cell phone. Imagine, that signal has to travel 500 miles and be caught by a satellite traveling at 17,000 miles per hour. … This is quite a difficult technical challenge, but we have it working in the lab, and we’re confident this will work in the field,” said Musk. He called the new T-Mobile US service the “perfect addition” to Starlink V2.
T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert told viewers the goal of the new partnership, which his company has branded Coverage Above & Beyond, is “the end of mobile dead zones. Our country is vast,” he said, noting the the United States is the fourth-largest country on earth by land mass. Today, half a million square miles of the U.S. is unserviced by any mobile network, Sievert said. The issue is about public safety and connectivity, first responder access, and more, he added. How the new service will be exposed for T-Mobile customers remains a question that Sievert wasn’t ready to explore in any detail on Thursday evening.
“We’re not here to announce the product yet,” Sievert said, in response to press query, “but my vision for this on our most popular plans is that we’re just going to include this.”
Sievert added that T-Mobile may consider making the service available for subscription to other customers at a far lower rate than they’d pay for comparable satellite-based coverage. He also opened the doors to other carriers interested in reciprocal roaming arrangements.
Musk predicted that Starlink V2 will deliver download speeds of “two to four megabits per cell zone. So that’s thousands of voice calls, and millions of text messages.”
The larger antenna arrays – measuring 5 to 6 meters, he said – will require the use of SpaceX’s Starship to achieve orbit. The rocket, visible in the background during the joint press conference, is SpaceX’s still-earthbound reusable heavy launch vehicle, first announced in 2016. SpaceX created the two-stage rocket for lifting cargo and passengers into orbit and beyond: Starship represents SpaceX’s ambitions to bring people and cargo to Luna and Mars.
SpaceX has conducted high-altitude test flights with Starship, but issues regulatory and technical have kept it grounded. In June, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered SpaceX to take dozens actions to mitigate environmental impacts associated with Starship on the protected ecosystems near the launch facility, which include state and national parkland. In July, a test of Starship’s Super Heavy booster rocket resulted in an explosion. While not catastrophic to the booster, the event required SpaceX to remove the rocket from the launch pad, for inspection and repair. SpaceX hopes to see Starship make its first orbital test flight later this year.
The T-Mobile/Starlink news bolsters SpaceX’s potential as a provider of 5G non-terrestrial network (NTN) services as the nascent market begins to develop. Nokia in July announced a five-year deal with AST SpaceMobile, another Texas-based private space company with plans to launch a LEO satellite network compatible with existing 4G and 5G smartphones. AST SpaceMobile plans to launch its BlueWalker 3 test satellite this year.
This is a win for Starlink following its recent loss of nearly $900 million in federal subsidies to extend wireless broadband services to rural locations in 35 states, after the Federal Communications Commission said that Starlink and one other winning bidder for work from the Rural Digital Opportunities Fund “failed to demonstrate that the providers could deliver the promised service.”