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T-Mobile and Starlink satellite connectivity explained: What you need to know

Your smartphone could soon connect to satellites in space.
By

Published onSeptember 8, 2023

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In August 2022, T-Mobile and SpaceX announced a bold plan to expand cellular connectivity across the US with the help of low-orbit satellites. The service aims to bring cell service to previously underserved areas such as national parks, uninhabitable areas like deserts and mountain ranges, and even territorial waters. Most of these regions cannot be covered by traditional surface-level cell towers.

The benefits of satellite connectivity are clear. You get consistent coverage regardless of terrain and it acts as a safety net for users that find themselves traveling through less populated areas. So in this article, let’s break down T-Mobile’s partnership with SpaceX and their bold plan to link your smartphone with Starlink satellites in the sky.

What is T-Mobile and SpaceX’s satellite partnership all about?

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In a nutshell, T-Mobile and SpaceX aim to use low-orbit satellites to improve cellular coverage on existing 5G smartphones across the United States. According to the carrier, over half a million square miles of the country don’t get any cell signal whatsoever. Reasons for lack of coverage can vary — for example, carriers cannot build infrastructure in protected land or oceans. Satellite connectivity makes coverage possible in these regions.

Having said that, satellite connectivity isn’t exactly a new concept, so why is T-Mobile and SpaceX’s partnership such a big deal? Well, it’s because you don’t need a dedicated satellite phone to use it. The carrier claims that “the vast majority of smartphones” will be compatible with the service. In other words, you won’t have to buy extra equipment or a new device to take advantage of satellite connectivity on T-Mobile.

Thanks to T-Mobile's partnership with SpaceX, you won't need a bulky satellite phone to send text messages while off the grid.

As for how it works, SpaceX will use its Starlink satellites to broadcast a new network using T-Mobile’s mid-band spectrum. More specifically, it will use the 1900MHz spectrum that’s part of the carrier’s 4G, and now 5G, network. SpaceX’s next-generation Starlink satellites — due to launch sometime next year — will feature upgraded antennas designed to pick up signals from small radios. This means that the connection should be as seamless as moving from one ground cell tower to another.

However, it’s important to note that satellite connectivity will only be offered when you don’t have a cell tower nearby. This ensures that the service remains available to those in need. That’s the big selling point for satellite-to-phone right now — emergency connectivity for those living in or traveling through underserved areas.

What can you do with satellite connectivity on T-Mobile?

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According to T-Mobile’s press release, satellite connectivity will allow you to send text messages (including SMS and MMS) and access “select messaging apps”. The company also hopes to add voice and data connectivity in the future. That said, developers of WhatsApp and similar services will have to optimize their apps to ensure that they work with the network.

In a tweet following the launch event, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk revealed that Starlink V2 satellites will reach 2 to 4 Mb/s per cell zone. That’s enough for texting and perhaps voice calls, but not much else. Remember, this bandwidth will have to be shared by all users in the cell zone.

Sending a text message could take as long as half an hour over a satellite cellular network.

However, don’t expect messages to go through at once. It could take as long as half an hour for a message to go through. You also need to be in full view of the sky — light obstructions like tree cover will increase the delay.

How much does T-Mobile’s satellite service cost?

We don’t know much about T-Mobile’s plans or pricing structure for satellite connectivity yet. The carrier aims to bundle it for free on its “T-Mobile’s most popular plans” but CEO Mike Sievert stopped short of a firm commitment. Customers on “lower-cost” plans, meanwhile, will have to pay an additional monthly fee. However, Sievert said that the price would be lower than the competition.

Looking at existing satellite connectivity options, it’s evident that sky-to-ground data doesn’t come cheap. Garmin’s inReach subscription plans start at $14.95 for unlimited SOS and just 10 text messages. It’s possible that T-Mobile and SpaceX will disrupt this segment, but expect some limits to apply.

A year later: any update?

Originally we were told this feature would start rolling out sometime in 2023. The year is almost up and yet will still have little concrete details on when it will actually happen.

So what gives? While the two companies are still relatively silent about when the new Starlink partnership will kick off. Thankfully, a new FCC filing in July helps at least give us a little more idea of what’s going on.

It turns out that the FCC still needs to grant approval. To that end, Starlink’s VP of satellite policy David Goldman recently sent this letter to the FCC:

SpaceX and T-Mobile are poised to bring the massive benefits of ubiquitous coverage to
millions of American consumers through their supplemental coverage from space partnership. This partnership will leverage T-Mobile’s exclusive, nationwide PCS G Block spectrum and SpaceX’s next-generation satellite capabilities to extend the reach of T-Mobile’s mobile service to its subscribers wherever they are, including in remote areas that for too long have lacked connectivity. Now that the comment cycle has closed, SpaceX and T-Mobile urge the Commission to follow through with its commitment to process innovative supplemental coverage applications by expeditiously approving SpaceX’s modification application.

You can read the rest of the FCC filing here, but basically, it sounds like competitors are trying to stop the deal from going through over concerns about the FCC potentially granting SpaceX authorization to use the PCS G Block spectrum.

Ultimately that means it is still something that Starlink and T-Mobile are working on, but regulation hurdles are currently slowing things down.