SpaceX working with T-Mobile: Satellite-to-phone companies excited

Elon Musk reached on stage with T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert to announce that SpaceX is working with the carrier to eliminate cellular dead zones on Thursday.

In addition, the companies claim that next-generation Starlink satellites are set to launch next year. It can communicate directly with phones, allowing you to text, make calls, and potentially stream video even when there are no mobile towers in the vicinity.

What’s more, Musk pledged all this is achievable with phones that people are using today, without customers having to buy any additional equipment.

Verizon and AT&T don’t deliver anything like it. However, SpaceX and T-Mobile aren’t the only players looking to use satellites to communicate with cell phones using the existing cell spectrum directly. For years, a firm called AST SpaceMobile has pledged that it will beam broadband to phones from space.

Lynk Global has already confirmed that its satellite “cell towers” can be used to dispatch text messages from standard telephones. It’s easy to guess that these companies would be scared that two giants were suddenly looking to bring in on a similar game — but that’s not the case. They seem satisfied.

“We love the validation and the awareness this is bringing to this technology,” said Lynk’s CEO, Charles Miller, in a discussion with The Verge. “We’ve been obtaining all kinds of calls of deliverers today who are like ‘help us!'”

Lynk’s initial objective is similar to SpaceX’s — partnering with various carriers worldwide to let their clients send texts using a satellite network it’s presently building. Like T-Mobile’s presentation, Miller especially emphasized the tech’s importance during crises and natural disasters, where things like wildfires, flooding, hurricanes, or earthquakes can take down conventional cellular networks. “It’s resilience. It’s instant backup working for everybody on Earth. So even though the towers are down, your phones can communicate,” he said. “This will hold lives.”

Miller’s pitch is comparable to Sievert’s and Musk’s, but he doesn’t seem particularly worried about competing in the same space. Part of his enthusiasm comes from Lynk being an early head in the market — it claims that in early 2020, it became the first to transmit a text message to an unmodified cell phone from space. “We believe there’s going to be more big companies jump in.

They have years and years to go. They’re years after us,” he said. “We’re going to be like ‘wonderful! Educate the world that this technology is done.’ And when we begin rolling it out at the end of this year, people will go, ‘I want it.’ They’re not going to like to wait years for it.”

Scott Wisniewski, the chief strategy officer and executive vice president at AST, echoed a similar sentiment. “Our CEO tweeted, saying we’re happy they’re focusing on this big market and this huge need. And it was reassuring to hear folks say things like the technology functions for them,” he said. However, he also foreshadowed that the market for satellite-to-phone communication likely wouldn’t be a winner-take-all. “In terms of the prevailing market, it will be multiple winners, in our opinion.”

AST’s service is perhaps more enterprising than what T-Mobile announced. Sievert said that he hopes T-Mobile will someday be able to provide data via SpaceX’s satellites, where AST’s express goal is to operate 4G and 5G networks. It’s gambling that the idea of broadband will be more attractive than just being able to text and make calls from remote locations. “We all comprehend that phones can go out of service quite often, or coverage can be poor. And that was a point that T-Mobile highlighted. So our solution is desirable in that regard,” Wisniewski said.

Where SpaceX and T-Mobile’s plan is primarily limited to the US and its territories, The wireless spectrum SpaceX is using for its service is owned and operated by other carriers and agencies internationally. It claims that other deals are necessary to work outside the US — AST and Lynk have global aspirations.

AST has gotten investment and a five-year exclusivity deal with Vodafone, one of the world’s largest cell providers, and has also received investment from Rakuten, a mobile carrier in Japan. Miller says that Lynk’s testing its service in 10 countries “as we speak” and is capable of providing it in dozens more.

Even the timing of T-Mobile and SpaceX’s announcement is perfect for AST and Lynk, as they tell it. The former is getting ready to launch a test satellite in just a few weeks (with five more slated for 2023), and the latter is planning on launching its commercial service with 14 network operators by the end of the year. If there was ever an ideal time for consumers to become very interested in precisely the thing you’re working on, right as you’re about to take a big first step might be.

Tim Farrar is an analyst at satellite and telecom-focused consulting and research firm Telecom, Media, and Finance Associates. However, he thinks T-Mobile’s timing could be because another tremendous competitor is about to enter the market — one that could have advantages that AST, SpaceX, and Lynk don’t. “The issue is going to be what happens with Apple next week,” he said, referring to rumors that the next iPhone may be able to communicate with the Globalstar satellite network for emergency purposes.

If that happens, he says, iPhone users might get this feature very soon, in a version that includes international support from the start. “I think what’s likely is if Apple does announce something next week, it will be ready to go as soon as the phone’s available. Because if they’re partnered with Globalstar, Globalstar already has 24 satellites operating in space that you can communicate with, and they have the licenses with the FCC and many other international jurisdictions.”

That last part is essential. According to Farrar, all Apple has to do is get equipment authorization from the FCC through a “simple and well-defined” process, and it’s off to the races. For the other companies — including SpaceX — who want to transmit from space using spectrum licensed by cell carriers, it’s not so easy. Historically, satellites used satellite spectrum, and cell towers used terrestrial range. But Farrar says that satellite-to-cell tech mixes the two in a way that the current rules don’t allow. “It’s a big regulation change for the FCC to make. And they’ve been considering it for two years and not resolved.”

T-Mobile’s carrier competitors may even try to look for a way to prevent SpaceX from using the carrier’s spectrum, which could complicate things further. “There’s heading to be a lot of fighting over the use of terrestrial spectrum on satellite,” Farrar said. “There have already been interference concerns expressed when AST was looking to partner with AT&T to trial their system.

None of the major wireless carriers want their rivals to gain the advantage. So clearly, people will protest any application for using T-Mobile spectrum on satellites. And the FCC will have to decide that, which may not be reached very quickly.”

Indeed, Miller wouldn’t talk about spectrum, saying Lynk has “an open issue” with it. However, Wisniewski noted that one of AST’s plans for dealing with spectrum issues is to work with carriers to get approval from regulators. He also said that providing services where there aren’t any could make things easier. “We share the spectrum with mobile network operators on a noninterference basis in places where they don’t have towers.”

While AST has regulatory approval for commercial operation in seven countries, according to Wisniewski, the FCC has only authorized it to test its satellite to provide service to the US on an experimental basis.

As for SpaceX and T-Mobile, their plans are quite a ways out, giving the companies time to try and work things out with regulators — they don’t expect even to start testing their service until the end of next year.

If one company can break through with a phone connecting to satellite networks, it could help all the other companies. For example, if Tim Cook gets on stage on September 7th and announces that you can send emergency satellite messages from the iPhone 14, many people who don’t use iPhones will get jealous. That could pressure the FCC to authorize the satellite-to-phone tech for carriers and their satellite communications partners.

And if T-Mobile has it, you know AT&T and Verizon will be making some calls. (Farrar thinks that other handset makers that don’t have as much clout as an Apple or a Samsung would have difficulty introducing a similar feature. Carriers could fight them, arguing that their phones should use the carrier’s satellite capabilities instead.)

Verizon does explicitly actually already have an agreement for satellite connectivity, though in a different form. It’s partnered with Amazon’s Kuiper project, which aims to create a satellite constellation similar to SpaceX’s. Instead of direct satellite-to-phone communication, Verizon plans to feed remote cell towers with satellite service instead of running fiber or cable. During the event on Thursday, Sievert did say that T-Mobile was open to the possibility of doing something similar with SpaceX.

Neither Verizon nor Amazon responded to The Verge’s request to comment on whether they’d modify their plans based on T-Mobile and SpaceX’s announcement.

As for AST and Lynk, neither company is particularly interested in competing. “You don’t need to build these remote cell towers if your phone’s already connected by the satellite,” said Miller.

At this point, only one thing appears clear: T-Mobile and SpaceX have let a genie out of the bottle. They announced loudly that soon your phone would be able to connect to satellites, letting you have at least some level of communication even when you’re in areas that have traditionally been completely isolated.

There are multiple ways fortes could play out from here — AST’s tests could show that you can beam relatively fast internet to phones from space and raise the bar for what consumers want higher than where T-Mobile and SpaceX have set it. Or regulators could suddenly figure things out, letting Lynk swoop in before T-Mobile gets out of beta. And, of course, there’s always the possibility that everyone gets caught in a substantial regulatory mess, letting Apple come in and do its own thing with a completely different kind of technology.

Whatever happens, though, people now know the phones in their pockets can talk to a satellite.