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SpaceX requests permission for direct-to-smartphone service

T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert (left) and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced plans for direct-to-cellphone satellite services at SpaceX’s Starbase test site in Texas. Credit: SpaceX webcast

TAMPA, Fla. — SpaceX could provide “full and continuous” direct-to-smartphone services across much of the globe with less than a third of the 7,500 Gen 2 Starlink satellites approved last week, the company said in a request to add the capability to the broadband constellation.

SpaceX filed an application with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission Dec. 6 to include a “direct-to-cellular” hosted payload on around 2,000 Gen 2 satellites.

The payload would enable these satellites to use spectrum from cellular partners to deliver “voice, messaging, and basic web browsing” to standard phones beyond the reach of terrestrial networks, SpaceX senior regulatory engineer Kyle Wesson wrote in an accompanying letter to the FCC.

“At full deployment, this hosted payload will enable SpaceX to provide full and continuous coverage of the Earth within +58° to -58° latitude by mid-2024,” Wesson said.

SpaceX has so far only announced a partnership to use spectrum from T-Mobile to provide a direct-to-smartphone service in the United States.

In its application with the FCC, SpaceX said its direct-to-smartphone service would be able to connect to phones that communicate in the same 1.9 GHz band that T-Mobile uses.

“The total number of satellites serving the United States and its territories simultaneously will typically be between 80 and 100,” Wesson said.

He outlined “theoretical peak speeds” of up to 18.3 megabits per second (Mbps) downlink and 7.2 Mbps upload per beam when using a higher bandwidth channel.

“The direct-to-cellular services will be available for residential, commercial, institutional, and governmental users in the entire contiguous United States, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and some of the most remote corridors of Alaska,” he told the FCC.

SpaceX’s application comes barely a week after the FCC granted it conditional approval to launch only a quarter of its proposed 30,000 Gen 2 satellites, while deferring action on the rest.

The new service could also connect remote Internet of Things (IoT) devices, Wesson said, building on “SpaceX’s expansion into this mobile services arena with its acquisition of [small satellite operator] Swarm Technologies” last year.

Swarm was co-founded by Sara Spangelo, who is now a SpaceX senior director of satellite engineering and is helping lead its direct-to-smartphone expansion.

In November, Spangelo said SpaceX expected to secure three to five more direct-to-smartphone partnerships by early 2023 after being approached by more than 50 telcos worldwide. 

She said SpaceX could launch initial services, starting with text messaging, as early as 2024.

Direct-to-smartphone services Apple launched via Globalstar satellites in November are currently limited to emergency SOS messaging for iPhone 14 handsets in the United States and Canada.

Other established companies and startups also have their own plans to deploy a variety of satellite services directly to standard smartphones.

And while SpaceX is searching for more terrestrial spectrum partners, the company has asked the FCC for more spectrum that could be used for a mobile Starlink satellite service — including in the 1.6GHz and 2.4GHz spectrum bands used by Globalstar and the 2GHz band assigned to satellite broadcaster Dish Network.

SpaceX has launched more than 3,500 satellites for Starlink’s current generation to date as it continues to build out coverage to reach a critical mass of subscribers worldwide.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously,...