Get ready for a rocky road to satellite phone everywhere.
The news that SpaceX and T-Mobile are partnering to add the average cell phone to a satellite communications network won’t be the last such announcement. On September 7, Apple is expected to announce that its iPhones will connect to a constellation of satellites operated by GlobalStar. and a startup called AST SpaceMobile There are plans to launch satellites. Next year Joe may offer similar access to partners including Vodafone.
The hasty announcement of SpaceX’s test facility in Texas was due to its lack of detail and Elon Musk’s concern that the public would not understand the importance of the project. T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert repeatedly noted that “this is not a product announcement.” To help clarify, here’s the state of play.
Why connect mobile phones to satellite networks?
Coverage in remote areas. Mobile phone towers in densely populated areas have made high-quality connectivity ubiquitous. When you get beyond them, however, satellites can make sense. Most dedicated satellite phones are large, expensive, and reserved for extreme situations: aid workers in remote areas of poor countries, scientists in Antarctica, or workers on oil rigs. Last night’s presentation included a lot of talk about people living on remote ranches or having hobbies that take them out into the wilderness. The sales pitch is that you don’t have to worry about losing service.
What’s so hard about connecting a phone to a satellite?
Distance and power. Your mobile phone is designed to talk to cell towers within about 10 km (6 miles). The satellites will be 500 kilometers away from you, and moving at speeds of more than 17,000 miles per hour. Users of Starlink, SpaceX’s Internet satellite network, connect using a base station that is 20 inches by 12 inches. For this connection to work without bulking up the phone in your pocket, the satellites in question need to have antennas capable of detecting a very weak signal. It’s technically possible — Musk says he can do it in the lab — but it requires a big antenna. The AST SpaceMobile satellites were initially so large that NASA feared they might increase the risk of orbital collisions.
Another challenge is finding some of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is part of the radio wave frequencies, that you can use to transmit back and forth. Last night’s big news is that T-Mobile will share some licensed frequencies for use with SpaceX to enable communications between its phones and spacecraft.
Will it really happen by next year?
There are many hurdles to making the T-Mobile/SpaceX plan work. Musk says the satellites that will be used, called second-generation StarLink satellites, will be redesigned with new antennas that will use T-Mobile’s spectrum. But the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates satellites in the US, has not yet approved the first designs of these spacecraft, and SpaceX has not updated its filings to reflect any changes.
And these second-generation Starlink satellites are already big enough, to the point where SpaceX will need to send them into space with Starship, a rocket that hasn’t actually gone into orbit yet. The journey from Starship’s first space flight to regular flight will be long enough to put into orbit enough new satellites that T-Mobile can connect to, even if all goes according to plan. A rarity in rocket development.
What about Apple’s satellite phone plan?
There is a feeling in the industry that the announcement was intended to block Apple’s news. While Apple won’t answer questions about the project, leaks from within the company suggest it has been working on adding satellite links to iPhones for several years. At the same time, satellite operator Globalstar disclosed in a financial filing that a “large, global customer” was partnering with it on a new communications network, and that the customer had paid $300 million to build 17 new satellites. can buy There aren’t many companies that can make that kind of investment, so all eyes are on Apple. Oh, and the company is promoting its event on September 7 with space-themed ads.
If the rumors are true, Apple will likely be able to offer satellite connectivity soon, perhaps limited to text and slow internet connections. And, as its name suggests, GlobalStar has spectrum rights around the world, not just in the US like T-Mobile, so international customers can have immediate access.
Is it worth it?
The average cell phone user doesn’t have a ton of time outside of a service area, and it’s interesting to wonder if the millions of dollars of investment required to implement satellite linkages will pay off for handset manufacturers and telecom firms. . There’s a clear marketing angle on display, with Mike Sievert painting the partnership as part of his company’s “non-carrier” brand. Placing Elon Musk’s name on something has proven (at least in the past) to attract a certain type of customer. For Apple, satellite connectivity could help the firm demonstrate that the iPhone is the most technologically demanding handset on the market.
For SpaceX, the partnership represents much-needed revenue for its expensive Starlink project. Slower customer growth in high-adoption areas in the US, combined with slower uptake overseas, makes a telecom partner with an existing customer base attractive. And for Globalstar, a successful partnership with Apple would represent a big payoff for a firm that has never been financially successful as a satellite operator.