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ADV NewsSpaceX, T-Mobile Team Up To Turn Your Smartphone Into A Sat Phone

SpaceX, T-Mobile Team Up To Turn Your Smartphone Into A Sat Phone

A breakthrough new plan to bring cell phone connectivity everywhere via Satellite.

Published on 09.01.2022

As adventure riders our favorite spots to explore and camp are typically off grid, far away from the conveniences of modern life, including cellular connectivity. Some carry expensive sat phones, and many others, small personal satellite communicators like Garmin’s inReach. 

Well, what if we told you SpaceX, in partnership with T-Mobile, is about to turn your current cell phone into a sat device? It’s true. During a media event at Starbase in Texas on August 25th, Elon Musk and T-Mobile CEO Michael Sievert revealed news about revolutionary new technology that will be carried into space next year atop SpaceX’s second- generation Version 2 (V2) Starlink satellites. 

SpaceX and T-mobile team up to bring satellite coverage to your smartphone
The new service aims to work with the phone already in your pocket. No extra equipment to buy. | Photo: Bill Lieras

Musk described massive antennas measuring 270 square feet that will be attached to his newest satellites as the most advanced in the world. “It’s a hard problem,” says Musk of getting satellite service to our phones, “that’s why it hasn’t been solved before.” He goes on to describe how these antennas must be able to pick up a very quiet signal from our cell phones from 500 miles away, while traveling at 17,000 miles per hour, all while compensating for the doppler effect caused by such fast movement. “So this is quite a difficult challenge, but we have it working in the lab and we’re confident it will work in the field.” 


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Musk says the satellite antennas will be capable of delivering up to 2-4 megabits of data transfer speed per cell zone, which would potentially allow text messaging and even voice calls anywhere you can see a clear sky. He said photos could be sent, and if there aren’t too many other users in the cell zone you could potentially send “a little bit of video.” However, only simple SMS-style messaging will be available in the beginning stages of the program.

So, no, it’s nothing like the high-bandwidth Starlink satellite receivers gaining popularity for home, recreational vehicle and boat use, and at least to start, the T-Mobile service won’t support voice or data, though increasing system capacity is an integral part of the game plan. 

One of the coolest elements of this satellite-assisted service is how it has the potential to enhance T-Mobile’s existing commitment to partnering with carriers around the globe. It’s already an industry leader in providing reciprocal service, having partnered with 220 countries, as well as all the major US airlines to provide seamless service for its customers when they travel. 

SpaceX and T-mobile team up to bring satellite coverage to your smartphone
The collaboration plans to provide complete coverage in most places in the U.S. – even in some of the most remote locations previously unreachable by traditional cell signals. | Photo: Rob Dabney

And while that works out great for Americans traveling abroad, it’s even more valuable in the big picture, potentially connecting millions who live remotely in developing countries, part of a long game for Musk, who’s been very outspoken about the importance of having all the world’s people connected to reliable internet. 

What if you’re not a T-Mobile customer and don’t want to change service? The deal between T-Mobile and SpaceX does sound exclusive, and Starlink has few private market competitors at the moment, though France’s Eutel and the UK’s OneWeb merged this summer to become more powerful, and Amazon has a competing satellite constellation program named Project Kuiper underway, though it will likely be 2026 before it’s put to work. 

SpaceX and T-mobile team up to bring satellite coverage to your smartphone
To provide this service, the companies will create a new network, broadcast from Starlink’s satellites using T-Mobile’s mid-band spectrum nationwide. This true satellite-to-cellular service will provide coverage almost anywhere a customer can see the sky. | Photo: Starlink

As for messaging apps that will be usable, Sievert said it is yet to be resolved how potential partner apps like iPhone iMessage and Android RCS will integrate with the new system, but was clear a solution was in the works. 

As Musk said at the event, this service will maximize convenience, but more importantly, it will save lives. As adventure riders, we’ve already been through the thought process of what we’ll do to survive an off-grid worst case scenario, which is why so many riders already carry a personal satellite communicator and pay an extra fee to have global search and rescue services on tap. 

The cool thing about more people on the ground having access to satellite service on their smartphones, however, is that during a natural disaster or other event that might knock out ground infrastructure, the satellite connectivity can be used by first responders to reach people in need, and also for loved ones to get word out when they are safe.  

SpaceX and T-mobile team up to bring satellite coverage to your smartphone
“This represents two industry-shaking innovators challenging the old ways of doing things to create something entirely new,” says Mike Sievert, CEO of T-Mobile. The companies issued an invitation to world carriers to expand globally with reciprocal roaming.

SpaceX is planning to launch the V2 satellites in 2023, and T-Mobile’s Sievert says it will begin beta testing in select regions late next year, though this timing depends on SpaceX being able to get the much heavier V2 satellites into orbit. They are evidently too large to be carried by Falcon 9 rockets, so Musk says SpaceX’s heavier Starship rocket will likely be programmed to launch the new constellation. If that seems to be taking too long, Musk says the contingency plan is to launch “V2 mini” satellites via the Falcon 9 to get the program rolling. 

According to Musk, customers won’t even need to buy a new phone to enjoy the satellite-based coverage, which is pretty neat, but even better, Sievert says T-Mobile’s most popular plans will include the added coverage for free, a move in keeping with its “Un-Carrier” campaign, which began when the provider dropped contracts, subsidized phones, coverage fees for data and early termination fees.

The program will give T-Mobile customers text coverage almost everywhere in the continental US, Alaska and Hawaii, which today has roughly 500,000 square miles of remote territory that is currently not reached by traditional cell signals. Puerto Rico and territorial waters will also be covered. 

SpaceX and T-mobile team up to bring satellite coverage to your smartphone
“The important thing about this is that it means there are no dead zones anywhere in the world for your cell phone,” said Elon Musk. | Photo: Kenneth Morse

This new program is a huge game-changer for people all over the world, though it’s somehow been missed by mainstream news. No doubt there will come a time when we’ll look back at today and marvel about the “dead zones” we once navigated. About how we would go out to the desert, up into mountains or out on the ocean and not be able to call home or get help if something went wrong. 

Interesting how the very thing we are often trying to escape on our adventure rides, the demands of modern connectivity, is the exact thing that will continue to help us enjoy those escapes. And even more so with this technology that widens our invisible safety net, and makes it easier than ever to keep our worried loved ones informed. 

Author: Jamie Elvidge

Jamie has been a motorcycle journalist for more than 30 years, testing the entire range of bikes for the major print magazines and specializing in adventure-travel related stories. To date she’s written and supplied photography for articles describing what it’s like to ride in all 50 states and 43 foreign countries, receiving two Lowell Thomas Society of American Travel Writer’s Awards along the way. Her most-challenging adventure yet has been riding in the 2018 GS Trophy in Mongolia as Team AusAmerica’s embedded journalist.

Author: Jamie Elvidge
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