Forget 5G wireless, SpaceX and T-Mobile want to offer Zero-G coverage

Enlarge / T-Mobile’s Mike Sievert and SpaceX’s Elon Musk appear on stage at Starbase Thursday night.

BOCA CHICA, TX—SpaceX and T-Mobile announced an ambitious plan late Thursday to bring ubiquitous connectivity to anyone with a cellphone from space.

The project would combine SpaceX’s Starlink satellite technology with the United States’ second-largest wireless carrier, T-Mobile US, and its midband spectrum, mobile network and large customer base.

To deliver space-to-ground internet to mobile phones, SpaceX will need to finalize development of its second generation of Starlink satellites. These will be significantly larger than the current ones, which have a mass of around 295 kg. SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk said the project could enter “beta service” before the end of 2023.

During a live event At SpaceX’s Starbase facility in South Texas, where the company is building and testing its next-generation Starship rocket, Musk appeared alongside T-Mobile’s US chief executive Mike Sievert. The event had something of a rocket concert flair, with a smoke machine, fireworks and lots of people mingling around the stage in black T-shirts. Only those shirts bore the magenta T-Mobile and white SpaceX logos, and three Starship prototypes loomed in the background.

Companies are offering to deliver a service that people have dreamed of since the advent of mobile phones: no dead zones. “Our vision is that if you have a clear view of the sky, you’re connected,” Sievert said.

How it would work

Currently, a user of SpaceX’s Starlink service must have a dish-shaped terminal capable of accessing high-speed internet from any of the 2,800 Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit. Existing satellites are simply not powerful enough to connect to much smaller mobile phones because the signal is too weak.

The solution to this problem is to use a much more powerful phased array antenna on the second version, or V2, of the Starlink satellites. Musk said the body of these satellites would be about 7 meters long and the antenna would extend about 5 meters to the side, or “about 25 square meters”. As the satellite passes overhead, this antenna will send and receive data along a focused beam crossing the surface of the planet.

Initially, at least, the service would not provide broadband Internet service. But in a typical service cell, it should deliver up to 2-4 megabits of data, enough for thousands of voice calls or millions of text messages. This would enable connectivity in off-grid areas or during emergency situations, such as when a hurricane disrupts service to a community.

A user’s cell phone would first seek service from a cell tower, but when it failed to detect it, instead of providing a user with any service bar, the phone would search the sky . It would then pull connectivity from the nearest available satellite, with software on the satellite communicating with the mobile phone as if it were a virtual cell tower on the ground.

Sievert said T-Mobile plans to offer the service for free to its users on most of its existing plans, initially covering the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, as well as much of the world’s oceans. . He called on foreign mobile network operators to partner with T-Mobile and SpaceX and offer reciprocal roaming around the world.

Challenges

Beyond the regulatory issues, SpaceX faces several major challenges to make it all work. Chief among them is the design and construction of large satellites capable of talking to mobile phones.

“These are the most advanced antennas in the world, in our opinion,” Musk said. “They have to pick up a very quiet signal from your cell phone. Imagine, that signal has to travel 500 miles and then be picked up by a satellite moving at 17,000 mph. The satellite has to compensate for the Doppler effect of moving so fast.”

Then they have to send the satellites into space. The V2 satellites are too large for the company’s Falcon 9 rocket payload fairing, which is 5 meters wide. So the full-size Starlink V2 satellites will have to wait for the much larger Starship rocket to come online. SpaceX is working to do just that at Starbase facilities in South Texas, but operational launches will likely be at least a year from now.

To that end, if Starship development doesn’t come as soon as expected, Musk said SpaceX may develop a Starlink “V2 mini” satellite that could fit into the payload fairing of the Falcon 9 rocket. But it seems clear that bringing the kind of global connectivity that Musk and Sievert talked about will require a fully operational Starship launch system.

In his comments Thursday night, Musk acknowledged the company has a lot of technical work to do, but he said SpaceX teams have made great progress.

“So it’s really quite a difficult technical challenge,” he said. “But we’ve got it working in the lab and we’re confident it will work in the field. So there’s actually a lot of additional hardware on the satellites and that’s also a lot of software. It’s a tough problem. “

The competition

SpaceX has already launched satellites for a competitor in this field, Lynk, and is expected to launch the “BlueWalker 3” demonstration satellite for another company AST Space Mobile later this year. Both of these companies attempt to provide direct cellphone service.

Lynk claims to have already successfully demonstrated the ability to use ordinary, unmodified mobile phones to connect to satellite Internet services. The company currently has one operational satellite in space, but plans to launch more, to provide a wider coverage area.

“Elon said it was difficult and it had only been done in the lab, but Lynk has done it in space before,” Miller said in an interview Thursday night. “We are the only company in the world to have done this.”

Lynk has 14 commercial contracts with mobile network operators spanning 35 countries, Miller said. The company expects to receive a license from the US Federal Communications Commission before the end of this year to begin selling commercial services in those countries.

While Lynk has a head start and AST Space Mobile a satellite ready for demonstration testing, the entry of SpaceX and T-Mobile, two of the world’s leaders in spaceflight and connectivity, has created a whole new level of competition. Plausibly, they could achieve this, as SpaceX has already deployed the largest constellation of satellites in the world and the company is used to delivering its new rockets.

Musk and Sievert appeared to be having fun on stage and talked about other ways the two companies could partner. Starlink, for example, could provide “backhaul” capability to remote cell towers on Earth. This means that satellites would connect these towers to the Internet without T-Mobile having to run cable to the towers.

And maybe one day, T-Mobile could become the first cellular service provider on Mars. “We would love to have T-Mobile on Mars,” Musk joked at the event.

About Hannah Schaeffer

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