Starlink, as part of a website redesign, recently unveiled its new direct-to-cell service to the world.
In this article, I will break down how the service is supposed to work, when it’s launching, who Starlink is partnering with, and more.
What Is Starlink’s Direct To Cell Service?
Starlink’s Direct to Cell service uses satellites with special capabilities to provide access to texting, calling, and browsing in various locations, including land and coastal areas.
It works with existing LTE phones, requiring no new hardware or apps and thus functioning with all 4G and 5G smartphones.
This technology also connects IoT devices using common LTE standards, broadening its utility beyond just personal communication – likely powered by the technology SpaceX acquired when it purchased Swarm in 2021.
How Does It Work?
It all starts with the Starlink satellites, akin to cell towers orbiting Earth. These advanced satellites are outfitted with technology that allows them to communicate directly with cellphones.
Traditionally, satellite internet operators like HughesNet or ViaSat would rely on satellites located in geostationary orbits, thus being tens of thousands of kilometers away from Earth.
As a result, they had to deploy a minimum of two satellites to cover both sides of the Earth at all times.
Additionally, due to the distance, it would take much longer for the signal to travel to reach the relevant ground station, which would lead to high latency times.
Meanwhile, Starlink, thanks to being vertically integrated with SpaceX, can take advantage of rapidly lower launch costs, allowing the company to deploy thousands of satellites in much closer orbital shells.
Therefore, you always have a nearby satellite acting as a connection point. On the ground, Starlink Ground Network stations act as intermediaries.
These stations are strategically placed to manage the data exchange between the satellites and the terrestrial internet.
The integration with Partner Operator Networks is what makes Starlink’s service uniquely accessible.
These partnerships enable the satellite network to plug into existing cellular frameworks, allowing for a smooth transition between traditional cellular and satellite service.
Direct connectivity to your LTE phone is perhaps the most user-friendly aspect of Starlink’s service.
It promises simplicity: as long as your phone can connect to LTE and you have a clear view of the sky, you can receive service.
This means no need for specialized hardware or software — your regular phone is all you need.
When Will It Launch?
Starlink’s direct-to-cell service will be rolled out in various phases, with Text being the first one available as soon as 2024.
Voice and Data is launching a year later in 2025. Similarly, IoT devices can tap into the satellite network within the same year.
Right now, there haven’t been any published hints regarding data performance (e.g., download and upload speeds).
That said, I’d presume that this is intended to serve as a backup/emergency service, thus throttling data throughput to some extent.
The FCC, back in early December 2023, granted SpaceX the right to “deploy a modified version of the previously authorized Gen2 Starlink satellites.”
However, SpaceX only received the permission to verify if the radios on the satellites work, allowing them to operate “within the 1910-1915MHz and 1990-1995MHz bands for limited on-orbit check out of the antennas immediately following deployment of each satellite for a period of 10 days or less, to ensure initial functionality of the satellite antenna.”
What Companies Are Partnering With Starlink?
Starlink has secured partnerships with 6 cell network operators, which include:
- USA: T-Mobile
- Canada: Rogers
- Australia: Optus
- New Zealand: One
- Japan: KDDI
- Switzerland: Salt
- Chile: Entel
The first time such plans were unveiled was in August 2022 when SpaceX CEO Musk and T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert during an event hosted by the carrier.
To provide this service, the two companies planned to create a new network, broadcast from Starlink’s satellites using T-Mobile’s mid-band spectrum nationwide.
Sara Spangelo, one of the co-founders of Swarm Technologies (the company that SpaceX acquired in 2021), actually leads the Direct-to-Cell division.
She has been instrumental in securing many of the above-mentioned partnerships, including the ones with Rogers in Canada.
Going forward, I’d assume that Starlink will focus on securing partnerships with European (also including UK) operators, especially considering how flaky mobile connections can be at times (at least in Germany where I’m from).
How Much Will It Cost?
Right now, neither Starlink nor its various partners have disclosed any fee structures. That said, pricing will be set by the network carriers and not Starlink itself.
Prospective customers will likely be able to book add-on packages with their carrier. Starlink will then receive a percentage of those bookings.
Starlink’s Direct-To-Cell Competition
Starlink’s biggest competitor in the direct-to-cell satellite industry is AST SpaceMobile, which went public back in April 2021.
AST, unlike Starlink, relies on just two satellites (called BlueWalker). Those satellites boast much bigger solar arrays and thus provide greater coverage per satellite.
Back in September 2023, AST successfully completed the first-ever 5G voice and data connection from a regular cellphone directly to a satellite in low earth orbit.
The test phone they used was able to achieve download speeds of 14 Mbps. Soon, its various partners, which include Vodafone, AT&T, and Nokia among others, will be able to tap into this capability.
Apart from AST SpaceMobile, SpaceX will also be competing with fellow LEO operator OneWeb, which offers mobile backhaul access to enterprise customers.
Another notable competitor is Globalstar who is powering Apple’s new satellite emergency service.
In fact, Apple, is reimbursing Globalstar 95% of the costs, which will total around $327 million, to replenish its existing constellation.
In return, Apple plans to use 85% of Globalstar’s network capacity to provide the emergency service.
Interestingly, SpaceX is currently requesting a waiver from the FCC to use the 1610-1617.775 MHz and 2483.5-2500 MHz bands, clashing with Globalstar’s near-exclusive rights for its iPhone service.
Previously, SpaceX was also competing with Iridium, who partnered with Qualcomm. However, in November 2023, the two companies disclosed that they ended their partnership.