T-Mobile, SpaceX promise ‘end of dead zones’ with cell phones connected to satellites

T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert and SpaceX Chief Engineer Elon Musk unveiled their grand plan to connect people – and it involves new Starlink satellites that will be able to connect to T-Mobile phones already in customers’ hands.

From a stage in Starbase, Texas, the two executives talked about how they’re in the early stages of a technical partnership to connect people in remote areas of the U.S.

It’s using a dedicated slice of mid-band 1.9 GHz PCS spectrum to be integrated into the Starlink satellites that are launched next year. Sievert said it’s like putting a cellular tower in the sky, just “a lot harder,” which is why T-Mobile teamed with the experts at SpaceX to make it all happen.

Cell phones using satellites to connect is not a new idea, but getting the cellular carriers on board – like T-Mobile – is another thing. Last year, Verizon announced a deal with Amazon’s Kuiper, but that was primarily backhaul, with hints that it could potentially turn into something more to reach customers in rural areas.

Sievert foreshadowed the move when T-Mobile announced its Coverage Beyond, where he said their corporate mission is to be the best in the world at connecting customers, and that was all about connecting people beyond the reach of T-Mobile’s cellular network, including on airplanes.  

But of course this deal with SpaceX is even bigger. Musk stressed that a lot of this is about making sure people have the ability to connect when off the grid and out of terrestrial cell phone range. Even if all the cell towers were taken out in a disaster, the phones would still work due to the satellite connection.  

Sievert also put a call out to other carriers around the world, suggesting they identify mid-band spectrum and get on board with this kind of thing themselves. Then they could strike reciprocal roaming deals, where T-Mobile customers could benefit when overseas and the partner carriers’ customers could take advantage of it when in the U.S.

They didn’t announce any specific products, saying that will come later. And in terms of pricing, Sievert said to expect that to be the “un-carrier’s” favorite price, which is to say it’s likely to be included for free on its most popular plans. In situations where it’s an add-on fee, he would expect it to be a lot lower than what current satellite service providers charge.

Musk explained that they are constructing special antennas for the satellites that are extremely advanced to pick up the very quiet signal from cell phones. It’s a difficult challenge but it’s working in the lab.

“It’s a hard problem," which is why it’s not been solved before, Musk said.

They’re starting with text messaging, including SMS, MMS and participating messaging apps, with plans to add voice and data coverage later.

They didn’t spend much time talking about the regulatory process they expect to go through.

TMF Associates’ Tim Farrar said on Twitter that it’s a copycat of AST SpaceMobile’s plan, i.e., using cellular spectrum.

He thinks they’ll most likely apply for a limited experimental license to get the ball rolling. But mostly, he said, it looks like this whole thing was designed to pre-empt Apple’s upcoming announcement of a free messaging service with Globalstar.

Apple will be using existing satellite spectrum, with no need for any rule change form the FCC, he said. However, he added, that service is believed to be limited to just two-way texting, with no voice call or photo support.