Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched its first set of Starlink satellites to provide cell phone service anywhere in the world, the company announced Wednesday, a milestone the billionaire warned can’t compete with terrestrial networks but will help plug cellular dead zones and boost global mobile connectivity.
Six of the 21 Starlink satellites launched on Tuesday are capable of connecting directly to cell phones, SpaceX said.
They are the firm’s first ever direct-to-cell satellites and are designed to function as “a cellphone tower in space,” according to Starlink’s website.
Once activated, the service will connect with ordinary, unmodified phones without the need for extra equipment so long as they are 4G LTE-compatible, a standard T-Mobile said covered the “vast majority of smartphones” already on its network back in 2022.
Starlink said it plans to roll out a text messaging service using the technology later this year and broader voice, data and IoT—the network of connected devices called the internet of things—services in 2025.
Musk celebrated the successful launch and said the satellites “will allow for mobile phone connectivity anywhere on Earth.” However, he noted there are limitations to the technology. “While this is a great solution for locations with no cellular connectivity, it is not meaningfully competitive with existing terrestrial cellular networks,” Musk said, pointing to the relatively limited bandwidth that is spread over a large area. Starlink also notes the satellites will let users connect “wherever you can see the sky.”
What To Watch For
Starlink ultimately plans to roll out its Direct to Cell service to customers on networks worldwide and said customers would stay “seamlessly connected.” In addition to T-Mobile in the U.S., the company has already announced partnerships with carriers worldwide including Optus in Australia, Rogers in Canada, One NZ in New Zealand, KDDI in Japan, Salt in Switzerland and Entel in Chile and Peru. It is not clear when these services will be rolled out or what specifics there may be on connectivity at home and abroad.
While it has revolutionized how we communicate, wireless technology has its limitations and even highly developed nations have areas where signal quality is poor or non-existent, an area known as a signal dead zone. The issue can be particularly acute in remote areas or those with tricky terrain where geography can make transmitting a signal difficult. Starlink, which hopes to offer high-speed internet service to anywhere in the world and has already used its satellites to connect citizens in war torn Ukraine, hopes to eliminate dead zones by beaming signal down from space.
$251.3 billion. That’s how much Forbes estimates Musk is worth. He is the richest person in the world. He leads French luxury goods magnate Bernard Arnault, the world’s second richest person, by around $60 billion. His wealth largely comes from the series of companies he cofounded and runs, notably electric carmaker Tesla, SpaceX (which runs Starlink), brain implant company Neuralink and tunneling enterprise Boring Company. Musk also runs X, an aspirant everything app he controversially acquired as Twitter for $44 billion in 2022.
42,000. That’s how many satellites Musk has said he hopes will be in Starlink’s constellation. The company is currently reportedly working towards a constellation of 12,000 satellites and reports compiling launch data suggest more than 5,000 were already in orbit by the end of 2023.