On Thursday, Elon Musk got on stage with T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert to announce that SpaceX is working with the carrier to completely eliminate cellular dead zones. According to the companies, next-generation Starlink satellites will allow you to talk to your phone directly, making calls and possibly streaming video, even if there is no nearby cell towers. What’s more, Musk promised all this is possible with phones that people are using today, without consumers having to buy any extra equipment.
This bold statement from the carrier is not something Verizon or AT&T offer. However, SpaceX and T-Mobile aren’t the only companies looking to use satellites to directly communicate with cell phones using existing cell spectrum. For years a company named AST SpaceMobile promised it would beam broadband to mobile phones from space. Lynk Global has already shown how its satellite “cell towers can also be used for text messaging from standard phones. It’s easy to imagine that these companies would be afraid that two giants were suddenly looking to get in on a similar game — but it turns out that’s not the case at all. These companies seem to be delighted.
Who’s competing with SpaceX and T-Mobile in satellite-to-phone tech?
“We love the validation and the attention that this is bringing to this technology,” said Lynk’s CEO, Charles Miller, in an interview with The Verge. “We’ve been getting all kinds of calls of carriers today who are like ‘help us!'”
Lynk’s initial goal is similar to SpaceX’s — it’s partnering with a number of carriers around the world to let their customers send texts using a satellite network it’s currently in the process of building. Miller, like T-Mobile, stressed the importance of tech during natural and emergency situations. These include when things such as hurricanes, floods or wildfires could disrupt traditional cell networks. “It’s resilience. Instant backup is available for everyone on Earth. He said that even though towers have fallen, phones can still communicate with each other. “This will save lives.”
Miller’s pitch is very similar to Sievert’s and Musk’s, but he doesn’t seem particularly worried about competing in the same space (pun intended) as them. Part of his confidence comes from Lynk being an early leader in the market — it claims that in early 2020, it became the first to send a text message to an unmodified cell phone from space. We believe there will be many more large companies joining the market. They still have a long way to go. He said that they are years ahead of us.” “We’re going to be like ‘wonderful! Educate the world that this technology is done.’ And when we start rolling it out at the end of this year, people are going to go, ‘I want it.’ They’re not going to want to wait years for it.”
Scott Wisniewski, the executive vice president and chief strategy officer at AST, echoed a similar sentiment. “Our CEO actually tweeted, and he said we’re happy that they’re focusing on this real big market and this real big need. And it was comforting to hear folks say things like the technology works for them,” he said. He also predicted that the market for satellite-to-phone communication likely wouldn’t be winner-take-all. “In terms of the overall market, it will be multiple winners in our view.”
Elon and Mike helped the world focus attention on the huge market opportunity for SpaceMobile, the only planned space-based cellular broadband network. BlueWalker 3, which has a 693 sq ft array, is scheduled for launch within weeks! #5G
— Abel Avellan (@AbelAvellan) August 26, 2022
AST’s service is perhaps more ambitious than what T-Mobile announced. Sievert said that he hopes T-Mobile will someday be able to deliver data via SpaceX’s satellites, where AST’s express goal is to operate 4G and 5G networks. The idea of having broadband is more attractive than being able text or make phone calls remotely. We all know that mobile phones may go down or have poor coverage. And that was a point that was highlighted by T-Mobile. Wisniewski stated that the solution was very attractive in this regard.
Where SpaceX and T-Mobile’s plan is largely 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, so additional deals are necessary for it to work anywhere 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. There might have been a better time than now for people to be interested in what you are doing.
Great news! Our BlueWalker 3 test satellite has arrived in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Teams are now working to prepare the spacecraft for a planned launch in early to mid-September. Read more here: https://t.co/KQF9o1JaAB #ASTSpaceMobile pic.twitter.com/MawbV2rnc9
— AST SpaceMobile (@AST_SpaceMobile) August 9, 2022
How Apple and iPhone 14 rumors fit into this puzzle
Tim Farrar, an analyst at satellite and telecom-focused consulting and research firm Telecom, Media and Finance Associates, however, thinks T-Mobile’s timing could be because another huge 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, and in a version that includes international support from the start. I believe that if Apple announces something next week it will likely be something available as soon as the device is made. 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 particularly important. All Apple has to do, according to Farrar, is get equipment authorization from the FCC through a “simple and well-defined” process, and it’s off to the races. It’s more difficult for SpaceX and other companies who wish to use licensed spectrum from cell carriers in space transmissions. Historically, satellites used satellite spectrum, and cell towers used terrestrial spectrum. But Farrar says that satellite-to-cell tech mixes the two in a way that the rules currently don’t really allow for. It’s an important regulation change that the FCC must make. And it’s something they’ve been considering for two years and not really reached a resolution.”
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 going to be a lot of fighting over 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. All major wireless carriers do not want to be outdone by their competitors. So clearly, people will protest any application for use of T-Mobile spectrum on satellites. And the FCC will have to make a decision that, which may not be reached very quickly.”
Indeed, Miller wouldn’t really talk about spectrum, saying that Lynk has “an open issue” with it. Wisniewski stated that AST plans to collaborate with carriers in order to obtain approval from regulators. He also said that the nature of providing service where there currently isn’t any could make things a bit 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. T-Mobile and SpaceX have long-term plans. This gives them time to work out details with regulators. They don’t plan to start testing service to the US until next year. If one company is able to connect to satellite networks with its phone, then it can potentially benefit all 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, a lot of people who don’t use iPhones are going to get real jealous real fast. This could increase pressure on the FCC for authorization of satellite-to phone tech for both carriers and satellite communication 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 a difficult time introducing a similar feature — carriers could fight them, arguing that their phones should just use the carrier’s satellite capabilities instead. )
Verizon specifically does 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 doing direct satellite-to-phone communication, though, Verizon’s plan is to feed remote cell towers with satellite service instead of having to run fiber or cable to them. T-Mobile did mention that they were open to working with SpaceX during Thursday’s event.
Neither Verizon nor Amazon responded to The Verge‘s request for comment on whether they’d be modifying their plans based on T-Mobile and SpaceX’s announcement.
As for AST and Lynk, neither company is particularly interested in competing on that front. Miller stated that you don’t have to construct remote towers for your phones if they are already connected via satellite.
Elon Musk let the satellite-to-phone cat out of the bag
At this point, there’s really only one thing that seems totally clear: T-Mobile and SpaceX have let a genie out of the bottle. They announced loudly, that soon your phone will 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 a lot of ways things could play out from here — AST’s tests could show that, yes, you really 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 maybe 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 huge regulatory mess, letting Apple come in and do its own thing with a completely different kind of technology.
Whatever ends up happening, though, people know now it’s possible for the phones currently in their pockets to talk to a satellite. And like Miller said, now that I’ve seen it and know that the technology is on its way soon, I want it — no matter which satellites my phone has to talk to.
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