As featured in Fierce Wireless.
On August 25th, T-Mobile and Space X announced their “Coverage Above & Beyond” partnership to bring about the “end of mobile dead zones”. The announcement was made by Mike Sievert, CEO of T-Mobile and Elon Musk, CEO and Chief Engineer of Space X at a media event that took place at Space X’s Starbase in Texas. It is one of a growing number of announced partnerships, ventures, and rumors of similar nature and purpose of expanding the frontier of connectivity where it hasn’t gone before.
Though the partnership between Space X and T-Mobile was announced as a technology partnership, that didn’t stop T-Mobile’s Mike Sievert from setting some commercial expectations. “Coverage Above & Beyond” promises to provide satellite-based cellular connectivity directly to T-Mobile’s current smartphones thereby providing coverage anywhere in the U.S., its territories, as well as the vast unregulated oceans.
Much of the technical burden seems to rest on the shoulders of Space X that will have to develop a new generation of LEO satellites capable of satellite-to-device communications. Elon Musk indicated that the phased array antenna assembly of the new Starlink V2 satellites would be about 25 square meters in area, which is much larger than the antennae units on the current V1 model.
T-Mobile will be lending a sliver of its mid-band PCS 1900 MHz spectrum for the service. According to Sievert, the new service will enter beta towards the end of 2023. This timeframe might be aggressive given that the Starship, which is needed to put the first Starlink V2 satellite into orbit, has yet to make its first orbital test flight.
Elon suggested that the Starlink V2 satellites would be “supplementary” to the current constellation of Starlink V1 units featuring enhanced Ku and Ka radios and inter-satellite laser link. However, the V2 satellites will be focused on providing mobile cellular service directly to handsets and other devices on the ground, not fixed wireless sites serviced by Starlink’s V1 network. Could the V1 constellation be used as backhaul for the new V2 satellite network? Good question.
A Journey of Technical Challenges
Elon Musk did not trivialize the technical challenges facing the partnership citing the need to overcome the Doppler effect of a satellite travelling at 17,000 miles per hour 500 miles above the earth. He suggested that the problem may be solved with a combination of new hardware and software. Given that the V1 constellation operates 340 miles above the Earth, the V2 constellation will likely be a new constellation with unique technical challenges associated with its purpose.
What is the purpose of the Starlink V2 network? Firstly, it is not a broadband network. According to Elon Musk, it will provide 2 to 4 mbps capacity per cell zone. He characterized the cell as being much bigger than a terrestrial cell.
John Sievert hinted that data and voice services may come in the future without specifying a timeline for when these features would come online. Initially, the service will be limited to SMS texting and MMS for light media applications in optimal scenarios. John mentioned support for “select” messaging applications that support T-Mobile’s constrained payload terms and conditions.
The fact is T-Mobile and Space X are not the first to partner or invest in providing satellite-to-handset cellular services. Even the proposition of users being able to access satellite-based communications using their existing smartphones is not novel.
Globalstar, which has a legacy with Qualcomm and Loral Corporation, has been providing CDMA-based satellite cellular services direct to device for years with their constellation of 48 LEO satellites orbiting at 1440 km from the Earth.
Rumors began more than two years ago that an unnamed prospect, suspected to be Apple, had commissioned Globalstar to provide satellite cellular services likely on the company’s 3GPP-approved Band 53 spectrum holding.
AST is another prominent player in the satellite-to-device cellular communications game backed most prominently by Rakuten, Samsung, and Vodafone. The company’s BlueWalker 3 prototype satellite will sport a 64 m2 phase array antenna that will provide cellular service directly to smartphones and other devices from 1200 miles above the Earth.
BlueWalker 3 will be dwarfed by AST’s Bluebird satellite with its massive 450 m2 phased array antenna. Unlike T-Mobile’s “Coverage Above & Beyond” service, AST will provide broadband connectivity to its customers upon launch.
Too Early to Tell
For most consumers, direct-to-smartphone satellite service won’t matter most of the time. Key use cases such as emergency communications in the midst of a disaster and texting friends and family from remote, unserved locations are highly niche.
Given that the satellite communications industry is one plagued by bankruptcy, the burning question is one of commercial viability. Mike Sieverts indicated that the satellite service will be bundled with their most “popular” plans at no additional cost. A small subscription fee of 2 to 5 USD will be charged to customers who fall outside of inclusive plans.
This raises a key concern. Will this endeavor, which involves the development of a new platform and deployment of an entirely new satellite constellation, make commercial sense for Space X at the end of the day?
Time will tell. In the meantime, Space X and T-Mobile will have to overcome many technical and regulatory hurdles and deploy a new, first-of-a-kind satellite network before there is real cause to get excited with that first text message from nowhere.