T-Mobile US is pretty excited about the launch of the latest raft of Starlink satellites that will provide direct-to-phone services and is talking about testing getting underway in the near future.

Mary Lennighan

January 4, 2024

3 Min Read
Spacex

We don't as yet have a date for the start of field testing, but T-Mobile noted that "now that the satellites are in low-Earth orbit, field testing can soon begin on the new service." That new service will see SpaceX bring its Starlink satellites together with the telco's mobile network to enable customers struggling for connectivity to get it straight to their cell phone.

This project has been in the pipeline for a while, SpaceX and T-Mobile US having trumpeted their plan to eliminate mobile coverage dead zones as long ago as August 2022 when they presented their Coverage Above and Beyond plan. Progress hasn't been the fastest since then, but SpaceX's Starlink recently started advertising its Direct to Cell service and earlier this week sent 21 new satellites into space, including six with Direct to Cell capabilities.

That's a fair milestone by anyone's standards.

That said, a full service beamed directly to users' mobile phones is not imminent. Initially, T-Mobile US will be able to offer text messaging via Direct to Cell with voice and data to follow "in the coming years." Starlink itself recently said it would be able to provide voice, data and IoT offerings in 2025, so the wait might not be too long.

In addition, the service will doubtless require a few more LEO satellites in place before it can claim full coverage. Indeed, even in the US, T-Mobile notes that it will ultimately be able to offer coverage "nearly everywhere." That's clearly a big improvement, but there's no 'nearly' in ubiquitous.

However, T-Mobile reminds us that there are currently well over half a million square miles of land in the US, as well as vast stretches of ocean, that are unreachable by terrestrial network coverage. This could be due to the nature of the terrain or restrictions on land usage, amongst other things. No question of there being a market there.

Further, T-Mobile describes the proposed service "a crucial additional layer of connectivity," which is a pretty realistic way of looking at it. More so, when you consider that discussions around the next generation of cellular technology for the most part centre on a network of networks, including satellite, in order to bring full coverage.

The satellites may have only just entered orbit and testing yet to begin, but Direct to Cell will be with us before 6G becomes reality. And with T-Mobile US never missing a chance to big up its network prowess, we're likely to hear a lot more about it as development progresses.

"Today's launch is a pivotal moment for this groundbreaking alliance with SpaceX and our global partners around the world, as we work to make dead zones a thing of the past," said Mike Katz, President of Marketing, Strategy and Products at T-Mobile US.

"We look forward to rapidly scaling up Direct to Cell with our partner operators around the world and rolling out messaging service for T-Mobile customers!" added Sara Spangelo, Sr. Director of Satellite Engineering, at SpaceX.

Those partners are few at present – KDDI, Optus, One NZ, and Canada's Rogers – but T-Mobile and SpaceX hope to add to their number and create more reciprocal roaming arrangements. Last year they issued an open invitation to join them and this week noted that "the invitation still stands."

They will surely tell us if and when other major telcos take them up on their offer.

About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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