How Elon Musk, SpaceX and T-Mobile are helping the satellite-to-mobile business

On Thursday, Elon Musk took the stage with T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert to announce that SpaceX is working with the carrier to completely eliminate cellular dead zones. The companies claim that next-generation Starlink satellites, due to launch next year, will be able to communicate directly with phones, allowing you to send text messages, make calls and potentially stream video even when there are no cell towers nearby. What’s more, Musk promised that all of this is possible with phones that people use today, without consumers needing to buy any additional equipment.

That’s a bold proclamation from the carrier — Verizon and AT&T don̵[ads1]7;t offer anything like it. However, SpaceX and T-Mobile aren’t the only companies looking to use satellites to communicate directly with cellphones using existing cellular spectrum. For years, a company called AST SpaceMobile has promised it will send broadband to phones from space, and a company called Lynk Global has already demonstrated that its satellite “cell tower” can be used to send text messages from regular phones. It’s easy to imagine that these companies would be afraid that two giants were suddenly looking to get into a similar game – but it turns out that’s not the case at all. They actually seem happy.

Who’s competing with SpaceX and T-Mobile in satellite-to-phone technology?

“We love the validation and attention that this is bringing to this technology,” said Lynk’s CEO, Charles Miller, in an interview with The Verge. “We’ve had all kinds of calls from operators today who are like ‘help us!'”

Earlier this year, Lynk launched its first commercial satellite, which was carried into orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9.
Image: Lynk

Lynk’s first goal is similar to SpaceX — it’s partnering with a number of carriers around the world to let their customers send text messages using a satellite network it’s currently building. Like T-Mobile’s presentation, Miller particularly emphasized the technology’s importance during emergencies and natural disasters, where things like hurricanes, wildfires, floods or earthquakes can take down traditional cellular networks. “It is resilient. It’s instant backup that works for everyone on earth. Your phones, even if the towers are down, can communicate, he said. “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 mobile phone from space. “We think there’s going to be more big companies jumping in. They have years after years left. They’re years behind us,” he said. “We’re going to be ‘awesome! Teach the world that this technology is done.’ And when we start rolling it out at the end of this year, people are going to say, ‘I want it.’ They’re not going to want to wait years for it.”

Scott Wisniewski, executive vice president and chief strategy officer at AST, echoed a similar sentiment. “Our CEO actually tweeted, and he said we’re glad they’re focusing on this really big market and this really big need. And it was comforting to hear people say things like the technology works for them,” he said. He also predicted that the market for satellite-to-phone communications would likely not be winner-take-all. “In terms of the overall market, there will be multiple winners in our view.”

AST’s service is perhaps more ambitious than what T-Mobile announced. Sievert said he hopes T-Mobile will one day be able to deliver data via SpaceX’s satellites, where AST’s express goal is to power 4G and 5G networks. It’s betting that the idea of ​​broadband will be more appealing than just being able to text and call from remote locations. “We all really understand that phones can go down quite often or coverage can be poor. And that was a point that was made by T-Mobile. So our solution is really attractive in that regard,” Wisniewski said.

Where SpaceX and T-Mobile’s plan is largely limited to the US and its territories – the wireless spectrum SpaceX uses for its service is owned and operated by other carriers and agencies internationally, so additional agreements are necessary for it to work anywhere outside the US — AST and Lynk have global ambitions. AST has received investment and a five-year exclusivity agreement with Vodafone, one of the world’s largest mobile providers, and has also received investment from Rakuten, a mobile operator in Japan. Miller says Lynk is testing its service in 10 countries “as we speak” and is capable of offering 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 planned for 2023), and the latter plans to launch its commercial service with 14 network operators by the end of the year. If there’s ever been an ideal time for consumers to become very interested in exactly what you’re working on, this could be just as you’re about to take a big first step.

How Apple and iPhone 14 rumors fit into this puzzle

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

If that happens, he says, iPhone users could get this feature very soon, and in a version that includes international support from the start. “I think what’s likely is that if Apple announces something next week, it will be something ready to go as soon as the phone is available. Because if they partner 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.”

The last part is particularly important. All Apple needs to do, according to Farrar, is obtain 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—that 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 spectrum. But Farrar says satellite-to-cell technology mixes the two in a way that the rules don’t currently allow. “It’s a big regulatory change for the FCC to make. And it’s something they’ve considered for two years and haven’t really come up with a solution.”

T-Mobile’s carrier competitors may even try to find a way to prevent SpaceX from using the carrier’s spectrum, which could further complicate things. “There’s going to be a lot of fighting over the use of terrestrial spectrum on satellite,” Farrar said. “Concerns about interference have already been expressed when AST wanted to work with AT&T to test their system. None of the major wireless carriers want their rivals to get the benefit. So, of course, people will object to any application to use T- Mobile spectrum on satellites. And the FCC has to make a decision that may not be reached very quickly.”

In fact, Miller didn’t really want to talk about spectrum, saying Lynk has “an open problem” with it. Wisniewski said one of AST’s plans for dealing with spectrum issues is to work with operators to get approval from regulators. He also said that the nature of providing services where there are currently none can make things a little easier. “We share the spectrum with mobile network operators on a non-interference basis in places where they don’t have towers.”

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

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

If one company can break through with a phone that connects to satellite networks, it could potentially help all the other companies. For example, if Tim Cook stands on stage on September 7 and announces that you can send emergency messages via satellite from the iPhone 14, many people who do not use the iPhone will become really jealous very quickly. That could increase pressure on the FCC to authorize the satellite-to-phone technology for carriers and their satellite communications partners. And if T-Mobile has it, you know AT&T and Verizon will call someone. (Farrar believes that other handset makers that don’t carry as much clout as an Apple or a Samsung would have a hard time introducing a similar feature—carriers might fight them, arguing that their phones should just use the carrier’s satellite features instead.)

Verizon actually already has a satellite connection deal, but in a different form. It has partnered with Amazon’s Kuiper project, which aims to create a satellite constellation similar to SpaceX. Instead of direct satellite-to-phone communications, Verizon’s plan is to feed remote cell towers with satellite service instead of having to run fiber or cable to them. At the event on Thursday, Sievert said T-Mobile was open to the possibility of doing something similar with SpaceX.

Neither Verizon nor Amazon responded The Vergeits request for comment on whether it will change its plans based on T-Mobile and SpaceX’s announcement.

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

Elon Musk let the satellite-to-phone cat out of the bag

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

There are many ways things could play out from here — AST’s tests could show that, yes, you really can send 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 can suddenly figure things out, and let Lynk in before T-Mobile gets out of beta. And of course, there’s always the possibility that everyone gets caught up in a huge regulatory mess, allowing Apple to come in and do its own thing with a completely different kind of technology.

Whatever ends up happening, people now know that it is possible for the phones in their pockets to talk to a satellite. And as Miller said, now that I’ve seen it and know the technology is coming soon, I want it — no matter what satellites my phone has to talk to.

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