Starlink starts advertising Direct to Cell satellite phone service as coming in '2024'

Slated to work with existing 4G phones, though space rivals still trying to shoot it down

SpaceX’s Starlink is advertising a Direct to Cell satellite phone service due to start next year and which it claims will work with existing phones and eventually provide access to text, voice, and data.

A dedicated page on the Starlink website claims that Direct to Cell will offer a text messaging service starting in 2024, with voice and data capabilities to be added in 2025.

This will enable “ubiquitous access to texting, calling, and browsing wherever you may be on land, lakes, or coastal waters,” according to Starlink, as well as supporting connectivity for IoT devices.

SpaceX's satellite connectivity offshoot first announced its intention to provide a phone service via satellite last year, in partnership with T-Mobile US. The plan then was to provide initial coverage "practically everywhere in the continental US," plus Hawaii, parts of Alaska, Puerto Rico, and US territorial waters, and to expand by adding other global carriers in future.

In addition to T-Mobile US, Starlink now lists Rogers in Canada, Optus in Australia, One NZ in New Zealand, Salt in Switzerland, and KDDI in Japan as those with "reciprocal global access in all partner nations."

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Starlink says the Direct to Cell service works "with existing LTE phones," and that no changes to phone hardware, firmware, or special apps are required in order to provide access to text, voice, and data. It isn't clear if "existing LTE phones" implies this will be a 4G service, or if 5G may be offered later.

The service is described as operating "like a cellphone tower in space," with network integration similar to a standard roaming partner. This implies that customers of global partner networks will be able to roam onto the Direct to Cell service whenever they are out of range of a cell tower for their provider.

No pricing information is yet disclosed, and Starlink was not immediately available to respond to our queries.

There was a flurry of activity around phone connectivity to satellites following Apple's introduction of satellite support in the iPhone 14 last year. This incorporates an Emergency SOS feature that can use a satellite connection if no cellular service is available.

Qualcomm announced earlier this year that smartphones based on its Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 platform would be capable of two-way messaging via the Iridium satellite constellation. UK-based smartphone company Bullitt Group announced that select handsets would be able to access satellite messaging services for subscribers in the US.

Last month, Vodafone claimed to have made the first space-based 5G call using unmodified handsets via the BlueWalker 3 satellite operated by AST SpaceMobile. This is a test vehicle ahead of the planned launch of five commercial BlueBird satellites in the first quarter of 2024.

In other news, Starlink is facing a potential regulatory challenge from AT&T, which is also planning to deliver a satellite phone service via AST SpaceMobile. AT&T filed a petition with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in May to prevent the Starlink from operating services using T-Mobile's spectrum, as it claimed this might interfere with its own terrestrial cellphone services.

SpaceX is also fighting off a recent filing with FCC's Space Bureau from rival would-be satellite phone service operator Omnispace, which has claimed SpaceX and T-Mo's planned hybrid space-terrestrial phone service will "constantly" interfere with its own system. ®

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