SpaceX says T-Mobile's direct-to-cell service launching commercially this fall

SpaceX said it 'looks forward to launching commercial direct-to-cellular service in the United States this fall.' But officials from T-Mobile haven't yet clarified the company's position on that launch timeline.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

May 31, 2024

3 Min Read
 SpaceX satellite in launch
SpaceX satellite in launch.(Source: Official Space X Photos on Flickr, CC2.0)

According to SpaceX, the company's "direct-to-cell" service with T-Mobile is launching commercially in the US this fall.

The service promises to potentially connect all of T-Mobile's customers to SpaceX's Starlink satellites in areas where the operator does not offer terrestrial coverage, regardless of the users' phones. That could potentially eliminate all of T-Mobile's outdoor dead zones.

T-Mobile officials have suggested SpaceX's satellite service might be included in its more expensive service plans for no extra charge, or through an extra fee on its other plans.

The launch timeline was included in one of SpaceX's recent filings with the FCC: "SpaceX ... looks forward to launching commercial direct-to-cellular service in the United States this fall," the company wrote.

T-Mobile officials were not immediately able to comment on the filing when questioned on the topic by Light Reading.

The details

SpaceX inked a phone-to-satellite agreement with T-Mobile in 2022. That agreement calls for the satellite vendor to add T-Mobile's spectrum into its Starlink satellites. According to one tracker, SpaceX has so far launched more than three dozen satellites that support those "direct-to-cell" connections.

However, it's not clear exactly how SpaceX's initial offering might work. For example, the company promises to support text messaging initially. Voice and data services, alongside Internet of things (IoT) offerings, are scheduled to launch next year.

Also unclear is how consistent and reliable SpaceX's initial texting services might be. For example, some early "direct-to-device" (D2D) services – like Apple's emergency texting offering, which works through Globalstar's satellites – require users to be outside and to point their phones at a passing satellite. Other services, such as those from Lynk Global, only work a few times a day as company satellites pass overhead.

SpaceX currently operates a constellation of more than 6,000 Starlink satellites. That web of satellites helps to keep Starlink's services consistent for users on the ground – a difficult proposition considering each Starlink satellite travels so fast overhead that it goes all the way around the Earth every 90 minutes.

SpaceX has said it hopes to have around 800 satellites capable of direct-to-cell connections in orbit within a few months.

For its part, SpaceX disclosed its commercial direct-to-cell launch plans in a filing with the FCC that urged the agency to make some changes to its initial supplemental coverage from space (SCS) ruling. SpaceX argued the FCC should create SCS rules that are specific to each band of spectrum used in such offerings.

The wider market

To be clear, T-Mobile is not SpaceX's only customer for phone-to-satellite connections. The satellite operator also has agreements to use its direct-to-cell satellites to offer similar services to Rogers in Canada, Optus in Australia, One New Zealand, KDDI in Japan, Salt in Switzerland, and Entel in Chile and Peru.

Like SpaceX, AST SpaceMobile and Lynk Global also promise to use terrestrial operators' existing spectrum holdings to connect phones to satellites. Other companies, such as Viasat, Omnispace and MidWave Wireless, promise to support phone-to-satellite connections using their own spectrum holdings.

Just this week, Verizon said it plans to use the same satellite vendor – AST SpaceMobile – as AT&T in order to link its customers' phones to satellites.

But it's not clear when AST SpaceMobile might begin providing commercial services. AST SpaceMobile officials said earlier this month the company remains on track to launch its first five commercial satellites on a SpaceX rocket in July or August. AST SpaceMobile has said it needs 45-60 total satellites in orbit for continuous services in the US.

On the other hand, AST SpaceMobile officials have argued that the company's larger satellites will support data services rather than just text messaging.

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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