SpaceX says it’s ready to test sat-to-phone system with T-Mobile

SpaceX told the FCC in a recent filing that it’s excited to begin testing its direct-to-cellular satellite phone system with T-Mobile and the National Science Foundation ahead of a commercial launch next year.

SpaceX representatives met with FCC staff last week to discuss its pending applications and review its responses to the staff’s technical questions. SpaceX explained how its “innovative antenna and topology software can dynamically avoid causing harmful interference to in-band, out-of-band and cross-border users,” according to an ex parte filing.

SpaceX said it has carefully designed its direct-to-cellular system to provide the best possible service while protecting other operational spectrum users from harmful interference.

Others aren’t so sure.

“There is some question of SpaceX causing interference,” said Lynk Global CEO Charles Miller in a recent interview. “They have not proven they can do this without causing interference and they’re asking for an STA,” or Special Temporary Authority, which is causing concern on the part of spectrum users in adjacent bands.

AT&T argues that SpaceX should not be allowed to use the PCS G Block licensed to T-Mobile through an STA and says the proper venue is through an experimental license from the Office of Engineering and Technology, which is the same process that authorized similar testing for Lynk Global and AT&T’s partner, AST Space Mobile.

Although it might sound a little “out there,” one concern is if satellites are used to provide wireless coverage, they could wipe out the need for terrestrial wireless services.

AT&T has told the commission that although nascent Supplemental Coverage from Space technology shows promise, it must be treated as a supplement, not a substitute, to terrestrial wireless services.

SpaceX and T-Mobile are just one of the many initiatives seeking to provide satellite coverage to mobile phones. Apple beat everyone to the punch in 2022 when it launched its SOS service with Globalstar, which provides satellite-based messaging to customers in emergency situations. Last week, Apple said it is extending free access to Emergency SOS for an additional year for existing iPhone 14 users.

Fits & starts 

Qualcomm earlier this month terminated an agreement with Iridium to bring satellite connectivity to Android smartphones. The service was supposed to deliver two-way messaging using Iridium’s L-band spectrum, but Qualcomm said handset OEMs were not interested in incorporating the non-standards-based technology in their devices.  

Lynk’s Miller said he believes the partnership collapsed because there were “too many cooks in the kitchen.” The solution was too costly for a service that was limited to emergency texting only, and with the need to involve Iridium, Qualcomm, handset manufacturers and mobile network operators (MNOs), there were too many interests to solve for. 

“We work with every single phone on planet Earth today because they all conform to the existing 3GPP standard, and we think that is the way to do this,” Miller told Fierce. Qualcomm and Iridium “made a valiant attempt to persuade handset manufacturers to do something non-standard and the handset manufacturers and maybe the MNOs know that’s not the way to go.”

3GPP Release 17 is a new standard that addresses non-terrestrial networks (NTN), but Lynk doesn’t need that. “Every phone on the planet that uses 3GPP will work with our system,” Miller said. “We go back to GSM, really old standards.”

Lynk has 35 contracts around the globe and expects to ramp up faster with MNOs in 2024. It’s already launched beta services in some obscure places, most recently with bmobile in the Solomon Islands.

But Lynk is also waiting for FCC approval to offer commercial service. “We need them to give us the final thumbs up” before they can start charging for the service and make money, he said.

Financial muscle 

Peter Kibutu, advanced technology lead at The Technology Partnership (TTP) consultancy, agrees that open standards 3GPP-based solutions have much better prospects than proprietary solutions due to their access to the wider device ecosystem and integration with MNO networks.

Since the Globalstar/Apple launch, new messaging services based on 3GPP Release 17 NTN (NB-IoT) standards have been launched by the likes of Skylo and Bullitt. These are based on existing GEO constellations and spectrum from incumbent satellite operators.

Next up , “we expect to see direct-to-unmodified-handset messaging solutions based on new LEO constellations coming to market from the likes of Lynk, AST and Starlink,” Kibutu said. “They will offer improved coverage for existing MNO networks and offer low data rate messaging and voice services."

Right now, the SpaceX-backed Starlink appears to have an upper hand since it is vertically integrated and has the financial muscle to launch a big LEO constellation, “but we expect that new direct-to-unmodified-handset operators like AST and Lynk will offer stiff competition,” he said.