T-Mobile says it’s getting rid of mobile dead zones thanks to a new partnership with SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet, at an event hosted by T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert and Elon Musk. With their “Coverage Above and Beyond” setup, mobile phones could connect to satellites and use a slice of a connection providing around 2 to 4 Megabits per second connection (total) across a given coverage area.
According to Musk, second-generation Starlink satellites launching next year will be able to broadcast service using part of T-Mobile’s mid-band PCS spectrum, which was bolstered when it was allowed to buy Sprint a few years ago. Musk said the new satellites have “big, big antennas” that are 5 to 6 meters across to enable the new connections, and that the plan is to launch the equipment using its upcoming Starship rocket.
Note, connectivity will be 2 to 4 Mbits per cell zone, so will work great for texting & voice calls, but not high bandwidth
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 26, 2022
The company says it’ll let you text, send MMS messages, and even use “select messaging apps” whenever you have a clear view of the sky, even if there’s no traditional service available. “If there aren’t too many people in the cell zone, you may potentially even have a little bit of video,” said Musk. As Sievert described it, operators of messaging apps like WhatsApp or iMessage will need to work with T-Mobile and Starlink for their services to recognize the satellite connection and work with it once it launches.
Musk provided a bit more detail by saying that, unlike usual internet service, it could work without access to Starlink’s full satellite constellation. By limiting it to certain messages and services, as well as only in places that don’t currently have cellular connectivity, it could use a more intermittent connection for “basic” coverage, although you might have to wait 30 minutes for a message to go through.
The two execs said they’re seeking partnerships with mobile carriers around the world who would be interested in reciprocal spectrum sharing agreements so that their customers can link up with SpaceX, and when T-Mobile customers come to other countries, they could also use those connections.
The service will launch in beta next year, and Sievert says he hopes it will someday include data. He says that when it launches, T-Mobile’s “vision” is for it to be included for free in the carrier’s “most popular plans,” though he did say that today’s event isn’t an official announcement. He did say T-Mobile wants to make it available to people with “low cost” plans for a “monthly service fee” that’s lower than current satellite connectivity services. (That does potentially encompass a wide range of prices, though — Garmin’s InReach satellite messenger subscription plans, for example, start at $14.95 per month, but go up to $64.95 a month.)
T-Mobile says that subscribers’ current phones will be able to utilize the network — no special equipment required. While rumors have been circulating that future iPhones will include satellite communications, potentially for emergency response purposes, that’s not the kind of tech T-Mobile is banking on here. As Elon Musk said in the announcement: “the phone you currently have will work.”
Sievert also said that T-Mobile was “open” to the possibility of using SpaceX for its network backhaul in the future, especially in rural areas. While that’s obviously a few steps ahead from what the two companies are pitching now (again, Musk says each cell will support around 2-4 megabits), it could help make it less expensive for the carrier to expand its network. Such a plan would be similar to what Verizon announced in collaboration with Amazon’s Kuiper satellite internet project, though that plan seems much further away from fruition, as Amazon doesn’t seem to have launched any of its satellites yet.
Earlier this year, SpaceX lost a bid for rural internet subsidies because of the cost of its equipment. But if it can piggy-back off T-Mobile’s existing equipment, which people in rural areas may already own, that could help its case with the Federal Communications Commission. The presentation on Thursday certainly hit on the idea of rural coverage, with videos of people in remote parks, the mountains, or herding animals.