SpaceX is moving forward with its plan to create a new satellite network aimed at ending dead zones for certain T-Mobile customers.
This week, the Elon Musk-led space company filed a request with the FCC to equip 2,016 of its secondgeneration Starlink satellites with a supposed “direct-to -to-cellular system” that could beam data directly down to phones in areas lacking traditional cell coverage. Though the real-world feasibility of such a system remains uncertain, SpaceX claims it could one day provide voice, messaging, and web browsing data with “theoretical” upload and download speeds of 3.0 Mbps and 4.4 Mbps respectively and provide “full and continuous coverage of the Earth.” The requests comes just days after the FCC approved SpaceX’s request to launch 7,500 additional second-generation Starlink satellites to low Earth orbit.
SpaceX and T-Mobile announced their partnership vision during a live event earlier this year at Space X’s Texas Starbase. Executives from the companies said the new network, in theory, could provide “near complete” cellular coverage in the U.S., even in remote areas typically underserved by traditional cellular companies. Those dark zones, according to T-Mobile, still account for well over half a million square miles in the United States.
In practice, the vision entails creating an entirely new network broadcast from Starlink satellites using T-Mobile’s mid-band spectrum, of which T-Mobile has plenty. When it goes live, users nationwide should be able to send text messages, both via SMS and participating messaging apps, with voice and web browsing coverage hopefully coming later. Crucially, T-Mobile says its partnership with T-Mobile won’t require a special satellite-enabled phone, adding that the “vast majority of smartphones” already on its network should be comparable with the service by the device’s existing radio.
The new network, according to SpaceX’s most recent FCC filings, will use “advanced phased array beam-forming and digital processing technologies” on each payload. When it launches, SpaceX expects its network will be available for residential, commercial, institutional, and governmental customers in the contiguous U.S., Puerto Rico, and parts of Alaska.
“In making this application, SpaceX seeks to leverage its existing space resources to provide even more ubiquitous connectivity options to Americans with a goal of ‘global affordable connectivity.’’’ SpaceX wrote.
Aside from phones, Starlink’s beefed-up network could also provide coverage for Internet of Things devices in the commercial and governmental sectors as a result of its August 2021 acquisition of competing satellite internet firm Swarm.
“This combination of direct-to-cellular and the Swarm IoT connectivity solutions truly encompass all ranges of data rates and power levels for devices around the world,” the company said.
SpaceX did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
SpaceX’s partnership with T-Mobile would mark a major turning point for Starlink, which has until recently, mostly struggled to find popular viable use cases for average consumers. Instead, the company has spent billions chucking more and more satellites up to its growing “constellation,” which Musk hopes could one day total around 42,000 units strong.
As of November 2022, the total number of Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit hovered around 3,500. That figure will likely rise significantly in the coming years given the FCC’s recent decision to approve the company’ request to launch an additional 7,500 Gen2 Starlink satellites. And while that approval is undoubtedly a huge win for SpaceX, it still fell far short of the 29,988 additional satellite launches it had hoped the agency would approve.
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