Starlink launches Direct-To-Cell, its direct access service to mobile phones
December 24, 2023

Starlink launches Direct-To-Cell, its direct access service to mobile phones

Starlink Company will launch a new group of satellites under the designation 7-9 on December 29 with a Falcon 9 B5 rocket and on the same day enable its direct access service to LTE mobile phones.

To begin with, let’s clarify: What is Starlink “Direct-To-Cell” direct access service to mobile phones? Starlink’s direct access mobile phone service uses second generation satellites to provide access to texting, calling and internet browsing in a variety of locations, including land and offshore areas.

It works with existing LTE phones, requires no new hardware or apps, and works with all 4G and 5G smartphones.

The technology also connects Internet of Things (IoT) devices using common LTE standards, expanding its usefulness beyond personal communications – possibly thanks to technology that SpaceX acquired during the purchase of Swarm in 2021.

It all starts with Starlink satellites, the equivalent of cell towers but in orbit around the Earth. These advanced satellites are equipped with technology that allows them to communicate directly with mobile phones. Traditionally, satellite Internet operators would rely on satellites placed in geostationary orbits, tens of thousands of kilometers from Earth.

As a result, they had to use at least two satellites to cover both sides of the Earth at all times. Additionally, due to the distance, the signal would take much longer to reach the corresponding ground station, leading to high latency times.

Direct Starlink connectivity to your LTE phone is perhaps the most useful aspect of this service

On the other hand, Starlink, thanks to its vertical integration with SpaceX, can take advantage of rapidly decreasing launch costs, which allows the company to place thousands of satellites in lower orbit.

Therefore, you always have a satellite nearby that functions as a connection point. On the ground, Starlink Ground Network (SGN) stations act as intermediaries. These stations are placed at strategic points to manage the data exchange between the satellite and the terrestrial Internet.

Integration with Partner Operator Networks is what makes Starlink’s service uniquely accessible. These partnerships allow the satellite network to integrate into existing cellular structures, enabling a smooth transition between traditional cellular and satellite services.

It promises simplicity: as long as your phone can connect to LTE and you have a clear view of the sky, you can receive service. This means you don’t need any specialized hardware or software – just a simple phone.

When will this service be launched?

Starlink’s direct access service to mobile phones will be phased in gradually, with text messaging available by the end of 2024, virtually as soon as the satellites are in low orbit after launch.

Voice and data will be launched a year later in 2025. Similarly, IoT devices can access the satellite network in the same year.

No indication of data performance (eg download and upload speeds) has been released at this time. However, we assume that this is intended to be something of a back-up/emergency service, so data flow is likely to be limited to some extent.

In early December 2023, the FCC granted SpaceX the right to “deploys a modified version of previously approved Gen2 Starlink satellites”.

However, SpaceX was granted permission only to verify that the radios on the satellites were working, allowing them to operate “within the 1910-1915MHz and 1990-1995MHz bands for a limited antenna check immediately after the launch of each satellite within 10 days or less, in order to the initial functionality of the antenna on the satellite has been ensured”.

Starlink has secured partnerships with 6 mobile network operators in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Switzerland.

These plans were first revealed in August 2022, when SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert announced the program at an event hosted by T-Mobile.

The Direct-To-Cell sector is led by Sara Spangelo, one of the company’s co-founders Swarm Technologies (which SpaceX bought in 2021).

In the future, Starlink will focus on securing partnerships with European operators. Currently, neither Starlink nor its partners have disclosed any fee structures or service price lists. However, the prices will be set by the network operator, not the Starlink company itself.