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SpaceX Launches First Direct-to-Cell Starlink Satellites for Service With T-Mobile

By Rachel Jewett | January 3, 2024

      SpaceX launches the first Starlink satellites with direct-to-cell capability. Photo: SpaceX

      SpaceX launched the first six Starlink satellites with direct to cell capabilities in its first mission of 2024 on Tuesday evening. SpaceX and partner T-Mobile say the service will provide coverage in cellular dead zones in the most remote locations. 

      The first six direct to cell satellites will first be used to test the service in the United States, Jessie Anderson, SpaceX structures engineering manager said during the Jan. 2 webcast. This capability will first enable text messaging, and then voice and data coverage will follow after more satellites are launched. The service will also work for IoT devices. 

      The satellites function like cell towers in space, and have an advanced eNodeB modem onboard that allows network integration similar to a roaming partner. The service will work with any 4G LTE device and most current smartphones are compatible. The Starlink satellites use partner spectrum to operate the service over their respective countries. Starlink is working with KDDI in Japan; Optus in Australia; One NZ in New Zealand; and Rogers in Canada, with an open invitation for more providers. 

      This is a milestone for SpaceX after founder Elon Musk announced the collaboration with T-Mobile in August 2022, targeting a late 2023 debut. 

      Mike Katz, T-Mobile president of Marketing, Strategy and Products, T-Mobile, said in a news release that this service is part of the company’s work to “make dead zones a thing of the past.” T-Mobile cites more than half a million square miles of the U.S. is not covered by cellular networks, along with large stretches of ocean.

      “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,” Katz said.

      Musk noted in a post on X that the satellites support about 7 Mb per beam and the beams are large. “While this is a great solution for locations with no cellular connectivity, it is not meaningfully competitive with existing terrestrial cellular networks,” Musk said. 

      Kate Tice, SpaceX senior quality systems engineering manager, highlighted the service’s potential to save lives during the webcast. 

      “Think about the impact on the safety around the globe like people assisting in emergency situations like firefighters and rescues along coastal waters,” Tice said. “It can also help people like me who love hiking and national parks and places where cell phones get no reception. Knowing that I can connect in an emergency will provide a peace of mind for both me and my loved ones.” 

      Swarm co-founders Dr. Sara Spangelo and Benjamin Longmier co-lead SpaceX’s direct to cell initiative. SpaceX acquired the company in 2021. Spangelo commented in a release that the team looks forward to rapidly scaling up with partner operators and rolling out messaging service for T-Mobile customers. 

      The satellite-to-cell market is generating a lot of attention in the satellite industry. Apple currently operates an emergency messaging service with the iPhone 14 through a partnership with Globalstar, which uses Globalstar’s licensed spectrum. Iridium was pursuing a similar partnership with Qualcomm with chips compatible with its satellite network, but Qualcomm ended the deal in November. Analysts said the price and the lack of technology standards were part of the issue. 

      Other companies Lynk and AST SpaceMobile have both demonstrated satellite direct-to-cell capabilities, and Lynk recently announced its intent to go public through a SPAC led by Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez