SpaceX says it's ready for a fall satellite-to-cell service with T-Mobile

  • SpaceX & T-Mobile intend to launch direct-to-device (D2D) satellite service this fall
  • An analyst told us that will give them an 18- to 24-month lead over some rivals
  • AT&T & Verizon are still backing AST SpaceMobile as an alternative

Space X – with mobile operator partner T-Mobile – “will have ... an 18- to 24-month lead” on the direct satellite-to-cell phone communications market over rival AST SpaceMobile, which has teamed up with AT&T and Verizon to provide similar service, TMF Associates President and principal analyst Tim Farrar told Fierce Network on Monday.

Space X has told the FCC that it will launch its initial direct-to-cell satellite service in fall of this year. “They’ll probably want to get to something like 300 satellites up to launch a service. That will give pretty good coverage of the U.S. and other countries,” Farrar said during a phone interview.

The SpaceX service for T-Mobile will use the company’s low earth orbit (that circle the world at around 310 miles – or 500 kilometers – above the globe). The larger 2nd generation SpaceX satellites can connect to the majority of T-Mobile’s 4G and 5G phones over its 1900 MHz spectrum. 

As the T-Mobile service starts in the autumn, "the real question is, whether they actually charge for the service at all," Farrar noted. He would expect them to go to market initially with a free service, SpaceX doesn't need the cash to build out the network and T-Mobile will probably pay them similar to how they deal with a roaming partner. Farrar expects calls to initially be handled over Internet apps like WhatsApp and Signal, so that SpaceX and friends don't have to with cellular aspects like E911 calls.

"Over time, when data/calls becomes more cost effective, then the packages will change," Roy Chua, principal analyst at AvidThink commented.

Satellite space chatter

SpaceX has told the FCC that it wants around 2,000 direct-to-cellular satellites as part of the 7,500 larger 2nd generation satellites it has been approved to launch. Space X has launched 13 direct-to-cell satellites so far.

This is far more than most other direct-to-cell projects, including the Globalstar LEO network, which intends to have 17 satellites up by the end of 2025 to support Apple’s SOS text messaging emergency communications system, which was launched in 2023. By the end of 2025, Space X will have far surpassed that number.

AT&T and Verizon, unlike T-Mobile, are not using the SpaceX/Starlink network to support their plans for direct-to-cell services. The other two major U.S. operators intend to use AST SpaceMobile. AT&T invested in the company several years ago, and Verizon has just said it will spend $100 million on its AST deal.


“We saw from Verizon investing in AST that they don’t want SpaceX to be the only game in town,” Farrar said. “But it does look like [Space X] is going to have enormous lead in this market, they’re going to have hundreds of satellites up when AST will probably have 6.”


"Initially we don't see any more than a few thousand subscribers signing up," Asad Khan, Research Director, 5G & Wireless Networks at SNS Telecom & IT said in an email. "However, we expect to see significant adoption in 2025 – potentially reaching as much as 0.8 million subscribers – as voice and broadband data services are launched and the perceived value of emergency messaging services is proven in potentially lifesaving real-world scenarios. We also anticipate the launch of D2D services from AST SpaceMobile and Lynk Global within the 2025-2026 timeframe."

We’ll see how all of this draws out over the next couple of years as more of these kinds of LEO satellites light up the night sky.