Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched the first Starlink satellites capable of beam signals directly to smartphones from space. Dubbed ‘a cellphone tower in space’, the constellation aims to eliminate signal dead zones on Earth. SpaceX said that six of the 21 Starlink satellites carried into orbit by a Falcon 9 rocket have direct-to-cell capabilities.
A few satellites will also carry internet-broadcasting capabilities that could be used to provide small towns and villages with low or no access to online services. Eventually, SpaceX hopes to launch a massive network of 42,000 satellites that it says will have the capacity to offer broadband internet to everyone on the planet.
T-Mobile is the first wireless provider to utilize Mr. Musk’s Starlink satellites, announcing that it will start offering the direct-to-cell service — with text messaging this year and calling and internet browsing in 2025 — to its customers. T-Mobile will require no special equipment for users to get on the network and says the service will work with any smartphone running its regular network.
The venture will be available to T-Mobile users whose phones are compatible with the new satellite spectrum, the carrier’s CTO tells Business Insider. But, he adds, the service won’t be an alternative to traditional cell towers, instead aiming to bridge coverage gaps in remote areas. “Coverage Above and Beyond will provide basic call, data, and texting services in places without mobile coverage today,” the company said in a press release. “It won’t be able to support streaming video or online gaming, but it will make it possible to send texts, pictures, and videos from your phone even if you’re hiking in the woods or fishing on the lake.”
It will take many more launches of the smaller second-generation Starlink satellites before T-Mobile will be able to offer complete global coverage, the company said. But the service will expand beyond the United States, with partnerships in place with wireless providers, including Rogers in Canada, KDDI in Japan, Salt in New Zealand, and Optus in Australia.
The first batch of 60 satellites will help SpaceX learn how to operate many spacecraft at once, an essential task for a project that eventually aims to have 12,000 in low-Earth orbit. It will also help the billionaire’s company refine its business plan to generate enough revenue to fund the more significant effort to colonize Mars. But, the company faces competition from other companies developing their networks to offer satellite-based internet, such as SoftBank-backed OneWeb.