SpaceX recently launched into Earth’s orbit six “Starlink satellites with Direct to Cell capabilities”. When they come online, these satellites will be able to provide cellular connectivity to every corner of the United States – even to remote locations.
This comes as part of Coverage Above and Beyond, a collaborative initiative that the company entered with T-Mobile back in 2022. It took a little while, but the program is finally bearing fruit. SpaceX explains on its website these satellites essentially function like cell phone towers thanks to an onboard “eNodeB modem”. The ultimate goal here is to effectively eliminate the existence of dead zones allowing for “mobile phone connectivity anywhere on Earth.” Something to keep in mind is the service is primarily meant for far-off locales.
As SpaceX CEO Elon Musk states on X (the platform formerly known as Twitter), the Starlink space towers can’t compete “with existing terrestrial cellular networks” on the same level. It’ll be good, but not that good.
Falcon 9 launches 21 @Starlink satellites to orbit from California, including six with Direct to Cell capabilities → https://t.co/FgiJ7LOYdK pic.twitter.com/IKBkTSB63CJanuary 3, 2024
Things will start off small. The ability to send text messages will roll out later this year. Then in 2025, users will be able to make phone calls, send data, and connect IoT (internet of things) devices, such as smartwatches, to the service. That’s assuming everything goes according to plan. Both companies have had to deal with multiple obstacles along the way. Not only were these satellites incredibly difficult to design and build, but government regulators also slowed down the process.
Originally, they had planned a beta test of Starlink’s remote connectivity in 2023. Obviously, that never happened probably due to pending approval from the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). Fortunately, the FCC did give SpaceX the green light to test their direct-to-cell satellites this past December. They have 180 days to complete their trials so we should see testing start soon although it’s unknown exactly when nor do we know if it’ll be open to the public.
Plans for expansion
The future is looking bright for the initiative. Dr. Sara Spangelo, Senior Director of Satellite Engineering at T-Mobile, states the company has plans to “rapidly [scale] up” the program to partners around the world. SpaceX is currently working with telecommunication companies in Canada, Japan, Australia, and more to get the service up and running elsewhere. Direct-to-cell connectivity won’t be exclusive to the U.S., but it does appear users there will receive it first.
SpaceX won’t be alone in this field. Amazon is developing a satellite broadband network called Project Kuiper to take on Starlink. Rockets carrying prototype Kuiper satellites are scheduled to take off within the “first half of 2024.” The European government is also looking to establish a program. Right now, it’s shopping around for the right telecom corporation to take the lead.
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