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Starlink Updates on Plan for 4G Space Mobile Direct to Cell Service

Thursday, Oct 12th, 2023 (1:39 pm) - Score 3,368
spacex_leo_starlink_vs_gso_broadband_satellite

SpaceX’s global network of Starlink ultrafast broadband satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) have just moved a step closer to launching their new ‘Direct to Cell‘ product, which will harness that same network in order to deliver a 4G mobile service to unmodified Smartphones across the world (regulation and ground stations allowing).

The Starlink network currently has around 4,863 LEO satellites in orbit around the Earth (altitude of c. 500km+) and they have approval to add roughly 7,500 more by the end of 2027. Customers in the UK pay from £75 per month, plus £449 for the regular home kit (standard dish, router etc.) and £20 for shipping on the ‘Standard’ Starlink package, which promises fast latency times of 25-50ms, downloads of c. 25-100Mbps and uploads of c. 5-10Mbps.

However, the operator signed a unique agreement with T-Mobile last year (here and here), which will enable them to launch a global space-based 4G and 5G mobile network to connect with regular Smartphones on the ground. At the time they proposed to launch their first beta product in select areas by the end of 2023.

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The good news is that Starlink has now launched an official product page for their imminent Direct to Cell product, which states that a basic text / SMS (i.e. SMS, MMS and “participating messaging apps“) service will be launched “starting 2024“, although the ability to make calls (voice) and use mobile broadband (data) won’t follow until sometime in 2025 (this requires their new GEN2 satellites, but they don’t have many of those yet).

The ability to connect Internet of Things (IoT) devices also won’t follow until 2025. In addition, Starlink doesn’t yet have supporting access agreements for this service with cellular providers in every country, although hopefully we’ll soon learn which operator will get behind it in the UK. Both Vodafone or EE /BT are fair bets since both have experience working with satellite solutions and are testing rival solutions too.

Global Partners (Cellular providers using Direct to Cell)
T-Mobile (USA)
OPTUS (Australia)
Rogers (Canada)
One NZ (New Zealand)
KDDI (Japan)
Salt (Switzerland)

The beta service, once live, will initially be limited to working across the continental US, Hawaii, parts of Alaska, Puerto Rico and their territorial waters. But this should improve as new reciprocal access and spectrum agreements are secured with more mobile operators, regulators and ground stations across the world. Not to mention the need for more GEN2 satellites, although SpaceX expects to have enough of those for basic services by mid-2024.

starlink-diagram-v2-direct-to-cell

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In terms of data connectivity, documents released last year reveal that the Direct to Cell system will be able to provide “theoretical peak speeds of up to either” 3Mbps or 7.2Mbps peak upload (Earth-to-Space) over 1.4MHz or 5MHz bandwidth channels per beam, respectively, and up to either 4.4Mbps or 18.3Mbps on the downlink (Space-to-Earth) over the same bandwidth channels per beam using LTE (4G) technology.

However, we still don’t know how much it will cost to add this kind of global roaming, which will need to be competitive with traditional roaming services. On top of that, SpaceX are facing some challenges to their plans in the USA due to concerns about spectrum interference, not least from AT&T (they’re planning a rival solution via AST SpaceMobile) and Omnispace. We might see similar disputes occurring in other markets too.

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Mark-Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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Comments
2 Responses
  1. Avatar photo Nathan says:

    Imagine how polluted those communication channels will be

  2. Avatar photo Pheasant says:

    I wonder if the new ground terminal they’re building in Wherstead will facilitate this, or if it’s just for additional uplink cap for broadband. There’s a heck of lot of ground station terminals going into a farmers former field.

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