The Elon Musk-led venture placed 21 satellites in space on board a SpaceX rocket
Billionaire Elon Musk has taken one more step towards setting up cell phone towers in space in a move that could shake-up the entire mobile telephony business. His space venture SpaceX has launched 21 satellites for Starlink, the satellite internet company founded by the Tesla owner, signaling a start to the satellite communication plans to link earth-bound smartphones.
The two SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets carrying the satellites took off from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Six of these have direct-to-cell capabilities which could potentially act as cell phone towers in outer space. They include an eNodeB modem similar to what is found in the cell towers on the ground.
Bid goodbye to dark spots on cellular network
Industry experts acknowledge that these systems would allow Starlink satellites to connect to unmodified smartphones on the ground using standard cellular spectrum. In addition, the satellites can also connect to Starlink’s ground network to help power services from operator partners to allow them to use these services.
For the moment, Starlink has signed direct-to-cell arrangements with service providers that includes T-Mobile in the US, Rogers in Canada, Optus in Australia, OneNZ in New Zealand, KDDI in Japan, Salt in Switzerland and Entel that runs operations in Peru and Chile. The service provided by Starlink will use 4G LTE technology to initiate text messaging services to devices on the ground later this year while adding voice, data and IoT in 2025.
A unique constellation of satellites
The satellites would be placed on low-earth orbit, which means they would be stationed at a height of 1,000 kms from the earth’s surface and would be able to circumnavigate the planet within 90 minutes. This would allow the satellite constellation to provide low latency compared to satellites operating from a much further distance.
Market analysts have predicted that the satellite-based broadband market could be generating more than $125 billion in service revenues within the next six years as solutions such as IoT, backhaul, commercial broadband and mobile satellite services expand. The steadily falling entry barriers to satellite launches could further fuel this activity.
While Starlink is an early adopter of the technology required to place low-earth orbit satellites and their vertical integration with SpaceX, other providers such as AST SpaceMobile have already tied up with operators like AT&T and Vodafone on 4G LTE and 5G-based satellite services with several others including Airtel from India joining the fray.
Access your smartphone anywhere on Earth
SpaceX said the latest launches would enable mobile network operators around the world to provide seamless global access to texting, calling and browsing wherever one may be on land, on lakes or even in coastal waters without having to change hardware or firmware. “The enhanced Starlink satellites have an advanced modem that acts as a cellphone tower in space, eliminating dead zones with network integration,” it said in a post on the company website.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said satellites would “allow for mobile phone connectivity anywhere on Earth. Note, this only supports ~7Mb per beam and the beams are very big, so while this is a great solution for locations with no cellular connectivity, it is not meaningfully competitive with existing terrestrial cellular networks,” he said.
Meanwhile, in a statement, T-Mobile said field testing of Starlink satellites with the T-Mobile network will begin soon. “With well over half a million square miles of the US and vast stretches of ocean unreachable by terrestrial network coverage, due to terrain limitations, land-use restrictions and more, this new service aims to give customers a crucial additional layer of connectivity when and where they need it most,” the company said.