T-Mobile and SpaceX Starlink say your 5G phone will connect to satellites next year

T-Mobile says it’s getting rid of mobile dead zones thanks to a new partnership with SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet, at an event hosted by T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert and Elon Musk.

According to Musk, second-generation Starlink satellites Launching next year will be able to broadcast service using part of T-Mobile’s mid-band 5G spectrum. Musk said the new satellites will have “big, big antennas” to enable the new connections, and that the plan is to launch the equipment using its upcoming Starship rocket. The two execs said they’re seeking partnerships with mobile carriers around the world who would be interested in reciprocal spectrum sharing agreements so that their customers can link up with SpaceX, and when T-Mobile customers come to other countries, they could also use those connections.

Image: SpaceX

The company says it’ll let you text, send MMS messages, and even use “select messaging apps” whenever you have a clear view of the sky, even if there’s no traditional service available. “If there aren’t too many people in the cell zone, you may potentially even have a little bit of video,” said Musk. As Sievert described it, operators of messaging apps will need to work with T-Mobile and Starlink for their services to recognize the satellite connection and work with it once it launches.

Musk provided a bit more detail by saying that, usual internet service, it could work without access to Starlink’s full satellite constellation. By limiting it to certain messages and services, as well as only in places that don’t currently have cellular connectivity, it could use an intermittent connection as satellites pass within range for “basic” coverage.

The service will launch in beta next year, and Sievert says he hopes it will someday include data. He says that when it launches, T-Mobile’s “vision” is for it to be included for free in the carrier’s “most popular plans,” though he did say that today’s event isn’t an official announcement.

T-Mobile says that subscribers’ current phones will be able to utilize the network — no special equipment required. While rumors have been circulating that future iPhones will include satellite communications, potentially for emergency response purposes, that’s not the kind of tech T-Mobile is banking on here. As Elon Musk said in the announcement: “The phone you currently have will work.”

Sievert also said that T-Mobile was “open” to the possibility of using SpaceX for its network backhaul in the future, especially in rural areas. While that’s obviously a few steps ahead from what the two companies are pitching now, it could help make it less expensive for the carrier to expand its network.

Earlier this year, SpaceX lost a bid for rural internet subsides because of the cost of its equipment. But if it can piggy-back off T-Mobile’s existing equipment, which people in rural areas may already own, that could help its case with the Federal Communications Commission. The presentation on Thursday certainly hit on the idea of ​​rural coverage, with videos of people in remote parks, the mountains, or herding animals.

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