Driving down a lonely stretch of highway. Trekking through verdant backcountry. Waiting out a severe storm.
These are all situations where traditional cell service can quickly falter, or disappear entirely. But if T-Mobile and SpaceX get their way, cellular dead zones may finally go extinct, in the United States anyway.
Last week, T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert and SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced a partnership that promises to offer at least some degree of cellular service “practically everywhere in the continental U.S., Hawaii, parts of Alaska, Puerto Rico and territorial waters.”
At first, the service will focus on letting people send text messages from anywhere they have a clear view of the sky. And in time, Sievert said T-Mobile will work on using that new network for voice calls and data connections.
“It’s going to massively improve people’s convenience and it’s going to save lives,” Musk said.
T-Mobile and SpaceX team up to expand cell service
But how will a system like this actually work? What will you have to do to use it? And who else is trying to make this work? Here’s what we know so far.
How does this work?
This whole plan relies on Starlink’s second-generation satellites, which haven’t yet slipped into low-earth orbit. (SpaceX’s Musk has previously said that these satellites can only be hoisted into position by the company’s Starship launch vehicles, and those haven’t made it into orbit yet either.)
They’re much bigger than the satellites beaming the internet to Starlink’s home internet customers, thanks in part to the antennas needed to communicate with cellphones from hundreds of miles away.
Think of them as ears, albeit really big ones — Musk says they’ll be roughly 25 square meters when unfolded. They need to be that big, he added, because they’re meant to “pick up a very quiet signal from your cellphone” all while the satellite itself travels at 17,000 miles per hour.
Those sophisticated antennas effectively turn Starlink satellites into orbital cell towers, communicating with earthbound cellphones over a set of radio frequencies that overlap with ones T-Mobile inherited when it acquired Sprint. And while you’ll need a clear view of the sky to connect to a passing satellite, Musk said you won’t have to point your phone at the heavens and move it around to latch onto a signal.
“We’re confident that it will be able to work if it’s in your pocket or if you’re in your car,” he said.
Starlink’s home internet customers can see download speeds that rival more traditional kinds of data connections, but don’t expect that kind of performance from a phone.
The total bandwidth available in each cell zone is expected to be around 2 to 4 Mbps — that’s much less than the average smartphone data connection — and it has to be shared among everyone in the same zone.
That’s not very much, but it’s plenty to pass along some emergency text messages — even millions of them, said Musk.
When can I use this service?
Sievert says T-Mobile will be able to start beta testing the service “as soon as late next year,” beginning with the ability to send standard text (SMS) messages and multimedia messages (MMS).
The company hasn’t confirmed whether that beta test will be open to members of the public or whether it would be for employees only.
In other words, don’t hold your breath.
Elon Musk says using satellites will end mobile dead zones
Will I need a new phone?
Some satellite phones available right now look beefy enough to survive a bomb blast — not exactly a great fit for your pocket or purse. Thankfully, there’s a half-decent chance you won’t need a new phone to use this service, let alone one you could probably hammer a nail with.
In fact, Sievert said, your phone won’t even know it’s “connecting to space” — as far as it knows, it’s latching onto to a standard cellular network.
“We’re using a piece of spectrum your phone already knows,” he said, adding that T-Mobile is trying to make the “vast majority of phones out there” work right out of the gate with the service. That could also include phones made well before the jump to 5G, too — in an email, a T-Mobile spokesperson said that “many 4G and other phones” would work on the service if they were compatible with those specific frequencies.
How much will it cost?
Nothing. According to Sievert, the feature will eventually be offered free on some of the company’s “most popular” wireless plans.
What if I don’t have T-Mobile?
The promise of phone service that can help you get connected in places that wasn’t possible before is a powerful one — especially if T-Mobile really does offer it free. For now, though, it’s not clear if the rest of the country’s major wireless carriers will follow suit.
U.S. Cellular CEO Laurent Therivel didn’t elaborate on any plans, but he told The Post in a statement that the technology that T-Mobile and Starlink are using is “certainly interesting and likely has a place in hard-to-reach areas.”
That said, he also said T-Mobile is “attempting to find an easy way to claim they connect rural America instead of doing the necessary work to build a network, provide distribution and be a part of the communities they say they support.”
“We’re not claiming to cover rural America with this,” said a T-Mobile spokesman in response. ” This partnership is about going beyond the limitations of cellular networks and the wireless industry today to eliminate mobile dead zones which are often a result of land-use restrictions, terrain limits and America’s sheer vastness.”
Verizon declined to comment, but in late 2021, the company announced a partnership with Amazon’s Project Kuiper to explore ways to improve its coverage back on earth. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
AT&T also declined to respond.
But the story may be different if you live abroad. T-Mobile is apparently open to new reciprocal roaming deals if wireless carriers in other countries pursue similar deals for satellite coverage. In other words, if those carriers let T-Mobile customers tap into satellites for phone service when needed in their countries, people visiting the United States from those countries can lean on T-Mobile and Starlink’s system.
Who else is working on this?
The idea of using satellites to keep our phones connected is a fascinating one, but it isn’t unique.
A Virginia company called Lynk also has plans to deliver mobile connectivity to previously unreached areas, and in early 2020, it successfully sent a message — technically, an emergency alert — from an orbiting satellite to a cellphone hundreds of miles below in the Falkland Islands. Sound familiar?
Meanwhile, a company called AST SpaceMobile based in Midland, Tex., has its own plans to build a “space-based cellular broadband network.” In a tweet, CEO Abel Avellan said the company plans to launch its BlueWalker 3 test satellite “within weeks.”
But the biggest name in the mix may be Apple.
No, the company doesn’t plan to ferry its own satellites in space — as far as we know, anyway. In a note published to Medium on Monday, TF International Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said that the company had “completed hardware tests” of a satellite communication feature for the new iPhone 14.
Similar rumors swirled around the launch of last year’s iPhone 13, but Kuo — who has a strong track record of predictions based on supply chain information — said the launch of a satellite communication service for iPhones “depends on whether Apple and operators can settle” on a business model. The Washington Post