Blog: Is Musk's satellite phone service a pipe dream? - Mobile World Live

Blog: Is Musk’s satellite phone service a pipe dream?

29 AUG 2022

The proverbial space dust had yet to settle before critics lined up to take shots at the announcement last week that Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite service would connect to T-Mobile US’ mobile phones.

If my LinkedIn newsfeed is anything to go by, telecom observers are unsure whether it’s one big marketing stunt, a huge technical feat or perhaps not even that impressive.

NeXt Curve analyst Leonard Lee noted on the social media platform the proposed service is “interesting at best but neither unique or game changing” despite the fanfare.

Much of the cynicism has focused on the idea the announcement was fast-tracked to steal any thunder Apple intends to make at its big launch next week.

Apple will be unveiling the iPhone 14 on 7 September and it’s rumoured to include a satellite messaging service with Globalstar. Apple used an image of space with stars shaped to form its iconic Apple brand in the promotion of its upcoming event.

The timing of the news led TMF analyst Tim Farrar to tweet that Musk was attempting to overshadow Apple’s upcoming news.

To connect phones to Starlink’s satellites, Musk and T-Mobile will use the operator’s mid-band 1.9GHz PCS spectrum which is available across its US footprint. By contrast, Globalstar owns spectrum all over the world, which could be more appealing to international customers.

Musk has also noted the service will need to run on Starlink’s second generation (G2) satellites equipped with large antenna arrays, but those are still in development.

Because those satellites are so large, the plan is to launch them on SpaceX’s much delayed Starship rocket that is also currently a work in progress.

Musk stated as an interim solution, a smaller version of the G2 satellites could be fitted into Falcon 9 rockets.

And adding to the challenges, Farrar noted T-Mobile’s PCS spectrum wasn’t included as part of SpaceX’s regulatory filing in July for its G2 satellite, which could lead to a further delay.

“So, will SpaceX be able to come up with a real alternative to Apple here? It seems like a tough ask to align the spectrum plan (which will have to be different outside the US), regulatory approvals and handsets/billing when Apple’s been working on this for two years,” Farrar tweeted.

He also noted the announcement by T-Mobile and SpaceX took a page out of AST SpaceMobile’s playbook to use cellular spectrum for a satellite-to-mobile phone service, but the Federal Communications Commission “has dithered for over two years about whether to permit that non-conforming use”.

Indeed, all Apple has to do, according to Farrar, is get equipment authorisation from the FCC through a “simple and well-defined” process, and the Cupertino-based giant is all set.

While it seems likely that Musk and T-Mobile US boss Mike Sievert will eventually have their service up and running commercially, it could lag behind several other similar satellite-to-phone services that are further along in development.

With Lynk Global and AST SpaceMobile having already signed up a number of operators for their own satellite-to-phone services, and Apple expected to join the fray next week, this may soon become a crowded market.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.

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Mike Robuck

Mike Robuck is the U.S. Editor at Mobile World Live. He joined the Mobile World Live staff in February of 2022. Prior to joining GSMA, he was editor of FierceTelecom and of Light Reading’s Telco Transformation microsite. He has a...

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