T-Mobile and SpaceX plan to eliminate mobile dead zones

Tuesday, 30 August, 2022

T-Mobile and SpaceX plan to eliminate mobile dead zones

In a live event held on 25 August, T-Mobile CEO and President Mike Sievert and SpaceX Chief Engineer Elon Musk announced Coverage Above and Beyond, their new plan to offer near complete coverage in most places in the US and eventually the entire world — even in many of the most remote locations previously unreachable by traditional mobile signals.

Today, despite powerful LTE and 5G wireless networks, more than 20% of United States land area and 90% of the Earth remains uncovered by wireless companies. The wireless industry has struggled to cover these ‘dead zones’ with traditional terrestrial cellular technology, most often due to land-use restrictions (eg, national parks), terrain limits (eg, mountains, deserts and other topographical realities) and the globe’s sheer vastness. In these areas, people are either disconnected or must pay exorbitant rates for a satellite phone.

Leveraging Starlink, SpaceX’s constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, and T-Mobile’s wireless network, the companies say they will provide customers text coverage practically everywhere in the continental US, Hawaii, parts of Alaska, Puerto Rico and territorial waters, even outside the signal of T-Mobile’s network. This service is expected to have a significant impact on safety, peace of mind, and individual and business opportunities around the globe.

Text messaging, including SMS, MMS and participating messaging apps, should empower customers to stay connected and share experiences nearly everywhere, with applications ranging from connecting hikers in national parks, to utilising remote sensors and devices, and communication in time of natural disaster. Afterwards, the companies plan to pursue the addition of voice and data coverage.

To provide this service, the companies will create a new network, broadcast from Starlink’s satellites using T-Mobile’s mid-band spectrum nationwide. The satellite-to-cellular service is designed to provide nearly complete coverage anywhere a customer can see the sky — meaning users can continue texting and eventually make a phone call even when they leave terrestrial coverage.

SpaceX says it has designed the system so that no modifications are required to the phones we have today, and no new firmware, software updates or apps are needed. Indeed, the vast majority of smartphones already on T-Mobile’s network will be compatible with the new service using their device’s existing radio.

The service will be offered starting with a beta in select areas by the end of next year after SpaceX’s planned satellite launches, with Sievert and Musk issuing an open invitation to the world’s carriers to collaborate for future global connectivity. SpaceX is encouraging mobile network operators or regulatory agencies who are interested in bringing the service to their region to get in touch via direct2cell@spacex.com, while T-Mobile says it will offer reciprocal roaming to those providers working to help enable this vision.

“We’ve always thought differently about what it means to keep customers connected, and that’s why we’re working with the best to deliver coverage above and beyond anything customers have ever seen before,” Sievert said. “More than just a groundbreaking alliance, this represents two industry-shaking innovators challenging the old ways of doing things to create something entirely new that will further connect customers and scare competitors.”

“The important thing about this is that it means there are no dead zones anywhere in the world for your cell phone,” Musk added. “We’re incredibly excited to do this with T-Mobile.”

Following the announcement, GlobalData principal analyst Tammy Parker offered her view on what the news means for the mobile industry as a whole. She described the partnership between T-Mobile and SpaceX as “a milestone in enabling emergency communications from remote locations devoid of terrestrial cell towers”, but stressed that it “does not alter the overall competitive landscape among US mobile operators or the need for national and international roaming agreements to support service in places served by other carriers”.

“Additionally, service will initially be restricted to SMS, MMS and certain partner messaging applications,” Parker added. “It will not include data or voice out of the gate, highlighting the fact that this service will primarily be targeted at emergency messaging when it launches.”

Parker did acknowledge that the service would be appealing to people who expect to find themselves in areas with spotty or non-existent terrestrial cellular coverage, particularly since T-Mobile has pledged to include the service at no extra charge in its most popular plans. She added that, because the Starlink-supported satellite-to-cellular service will ride on T-Mobile’s mid-band spectrum, most phones on T-Mobile’s network will be able to connect to the remote service.

“There could eventually end up being duelling satellite-to-cellular offers in the US, given that Verizon and Amazon’s Project Kuiper announced in October 2021 plans to deliver connectivity to unserved and underserved US communities, though that effort is initially focused on providing cellular backhaul solutions to extend Verizon’s service reach and, at least as announced, is not aimed at powering remote communications nationwide,” Parker concluded.

Emma Mohr-McClune, Technology Service Director at GlobalData, has meanwhile described the announcement as “a call to partnership action”.

“T-Mobile will eventually want to position Coverage Above and Beyond as an extension of its roaming proposition, much in the same way that it has moved to differentiate this recently with in-flight connectivity, AAA insurance and travel discounts,” she said. “But to be able to offer this form of emergency or remote service back-up internationally, SpaceX will need to attract dozens of carriers from other markets. We’re clearly a long way off that scenario.”

Pictured: T-Mobile CEO and President Mike Sievert and SpaceX Chief Engineer Elon Musk.

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