SpaceX, the aerospace manufacturer and space transport services company, has recently received the green light from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to conduct experimental tests for a new service, according to a recent report from The Register. This service aims to enable unmodified smartphones to make calls directly through a satellite link, leveraging SpaceX’s advanced Gen2 Starlink satellites.
The FCC, which oversees network regulations in the United States, has granted Elon Musk’s SpaceX a limited period of 180 days to execute these trials. During this period, approximately 840 satellites equipped with direct-to-cellular payloads will be involved, with around 60 satellites actively serving handsets in the U.S. at any given time under this experimental authorization.
This initiative will utilize frequencies in the 1910-1915 MHz and 1990-1995 MHz bands, commonly known as the PCS G Block. T-Mobile USA, the licensee of these bands, is collaborating with SpaceX in this venture. The collaboration was announced last year, with the aim of using low Earth orbit satellites to extend cellphone coverage to the most remote locations across the U.S. and its territorial waters.
SpaceX has already started promoting a Direct to Cell satellite phone service on its website, anticipating the launch of a text messaging service in 2024, followed by voice and data features in 2025. The company is also looking to expand coverage through agreements with carriers in other regions, including Rogers in Canada, Optus in Australia, One NZ in New Zealand, Salt in Switzerland, and KDDI in Japan.
The FCC’s recent partial authorization for SpaceX to deploy and operate the Gen2 Starlink satellites is a significant step forward. This decision is expected to facilitate the rollout of high-speed satellite broadband nationwide in the U.S., while ensuring the protection of other satellite and terrestrial operators from harmful interference and maintaining a safe space environment.
Challenges in the satellite communication arena
However, not everyone shares the enthusiasm for this development. Earlier this year, AT&T filed a petition with the FCC attempting to block the plans of T-Mobile and Starlink, citing concerns that satellite-based phone operations might disrupt adjacent frequency blocks and interfere with terrestrial wireless services. Gartner VP analyst Bill Ray highlighted the potential risk of interference due to Starlink’s satellites having smaller antennas compared to competitors like AST SpaceMobile.
Despite these challenges, SpaceX is set to proceed with its testing phase, aiming to demonstrate the viability and effectiveness of its technology. However, the company faced a setback as the FCC recently denied SpaceX’s bid for $885 million in subsidies from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to provide internet service in the most remote areas of the U.S.