From rockets to phone calls, SpaceX is at the forefront of technology advances. As a worldwide leader in satellite communications, SpaceX has, until now, been conspicuously absent from partnerships with mobile carriers, choosing instead to use its bleeding edge Starlink system to provide service to rural areas, where residents are unable to get access to the internet or cell phone coverage any other way.
This changed recently, with an announcement from the tech giant about a partnership with T-Mobile to add satellite coverage to the carrier's PCS (1900 MHz) spectrum.
The New Network
The FCC recently approved Starlink to provide connectivity to mobile users, like those in boats or RVs. Users connect to Starlink while stationary but then maintain a connection through the system when they move. In addition, the 3GPP, the global industry body responsible for setting the 5G global standard of connectivity, ratified Release 17 in March, which allows non-terrestrial communications access to the global 5G network.
These changes happened as T-Mobile continued to roll out greater 5G coverage along its 2.5 GHz Ultra Capacity and 600 MHz coverage bands. However, these bands can't reach remote and rural users, so T-Mobile investigated other opportunities to serve more remote subscribers. Despite the partial funding from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), the poor economics makes covering remote areas unappealing for for-profit mobile carriers.
The T-Mobile and SpaceX partnership involves using 10 MHz of the G-Block of the PCS band of spectrum and adding significantly larger antennae from Space X to its existing Starlink v2 satellites. The satellites will need to be launched before the project can begin, and SpaceX must file Part 25 with the FCC to operate the bands.
Although this is more challenging than simply building terrestrial towers, using the SpaceX satellites provides significantly larger coverage, and greater accessibility for a larger number of subscribers, than using a terrestrial network alone. The satellite service covers the sparsely populated rural areas as well as locations that previously didn't have connectivity at all, including deserts, oceans and seas, and the deep wilderness.
For example, national parks with high visitation but poor cell coverage can benefit from the additional Starlink cell coverage. Although some park visitors may worry about ruining the solitude parks provide, the public safety benefit of the SpaceX coverage would undoubtedly benefit many people in case of emergency.
Services Provided by the New T-Mobile and SpaceX Coverage
Real-time messaging is the first use of the service, with T-Mobile verifying and testing compatible messaging services to ensure that the new network provides maximum compatibility without lags in transmission. These include RCS services like iMessage, What's App, Google Messenger, and Facebook Messenger, as well as other supported messaging apps on common platforms. Communication speed is anticipated to be 1-2 MB/s, so thousands of users along the same bandwidth might not be feasible.
Users of the new coverage should find that their existing devices are compatible with the band, which means they won't have to upgrade to a newer device. And, although T-Mobile hasn't specified if the network is 4G or 5G, the fact that 5G NTN is part of 3GPP Rel. 17 means that the network won't be 5G compatible for another several months at the earliest. But, T-Mobile customers likely won't have to pay extra for the service; according to T-Mobile's CEO Mike Sievert, the service should be free for all customers using the Magenta Max service.
T-Mobile has been a pioneer in 5G communication through its Long Range 600 MHz 5G network. Its added capacity ‘Ultra Capacity' 5G (2.5 GHz) network was soon to follow. Now, with the SpaceX partnership for coverage, T-Mobile is once again demonstrating why it's a leader in cellular advances.
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