SpaceX marked the beginning of 2024 with a groundbreaking mission, launching on Tuesday the first six Starlink satellites equipped with direct-to-cell capabilities. Collaborating with T-Mobile, SpaceX aims to eliminate cellular dead zones in the most remote areas in the U.S.
These six satellites will initially undergo testing in the U.S., and the service will initially offer text messaging. Subsequently, voice and data coverage will be rolled out as more satellites are launched. Additionally, the service will support IoT devices.
These satellites function as space-based cell towers, featuring advanced eNodeB modems that enable network integration, akin to roaming partners. They are compatible with most 4G LTE devices, including most current smartphones. Starlink collaborates with partners worldwide, such as KDDI in Japan, Optus in Australia, One NZ in New Zealand, and Rogers in Canada, with an open invitation for additional providers.
Are cell towers afraid of obsolescence shaking in their foundations?
The launch had some media outlets hinting at the possible demise of some cell towers.
While satellite broadband technology has the potential to provide high-speed internet access in areas where traditional terrestrial broadband infrastructure is lacking, it is unlikely that many cell towers will be replaced by satellites for broadband in the U.S.
Cell towers serve densely populated areas and provide high-capacity data connections to many mobile devices. On the other hand, satellites have limited bandwidth and can become congested when serving many users simultaneously. Cell towers are better suited for meeting the high data demands of urban and suburban areas.
In addition, satellite communication involves a longer round-trip signal travel time (latency) than terrestrial networks. This latency can affect the real-time performance of online gaming and video conferencing applications. Cell towers provide lower-latency connections, making them essential for many applications.
The cost to place one of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites into orbit is not publicly disclosed. The exact cost per satellite is considered proprietary information and is not typically shared by commercial space companies; however, cell towers would appear more cost-effective to cover an unserved area in the U.S. than launching and maintaining satellites.
A hybrid approach that combines satellite and terrestrial infrastructure is often more practical for comprehensive coverage.
The collaboration between SpaceX and T-Mobile, announced by SpaceX founder Elon Musk in August 2022, has achieved this milestone after targeting a late 2023 debut.
Mike Katz, T-Mobile’s President of Marketing, Strategy, and Products, emphasized the importance of eliminating cellular dead zones, covering more than half a million square miles of the U.S. and extensive stretches of ocean where connectivity is lacking.
In a post on X, Elon Musk noted that the satellites offer approximately 7 Mbps per beam, with sizable beams. While a valuable solution for areas without cellular connectivity, Musk acknowledged that it does not significantly compete with existing terrestrial cellular networks.