In the United States, SpaceX has just obtained authorization to grow its Starlink constellation to more than 10,000 satellites in orbit. A few months ago, we learned that Starlink had entered into a partnership with T-Mobile, in order to deliver satellite connectivity to subscribers in white areas in the United States.
However, on December 6, in addition to this authorization, SpaceX asked the FCC for authorization to equip part of the next 2nd generation satellites launched into orbit with a “direct-to-cellular” antenna allowing communication directly with smartphones on the ground.
Starlink will announce a partnership with T-Mobile to eradicate white zones in the United States
Depending on demand, the new antenna should allow the service to provide “voice, messaging, and basic internet browsing with theoretical download speeds of either 4.4 Mbps or 18.3Mbps”. The system should “implement LTE Layer 2 technology”which is called 4G in France.
In other words, the air of nothing – and even if at first, the connectivity will be delivered to users via T-Mobile – SpaceX enters an activity that was until now the preserve of mobile operators who own an antenna network. Enough to imagine quite easily how Starlink could eventually turn into a kind of global mobile operator.
What already shake players such as Orange, SFR, Bouygues and Free Mobile? Not really in the short term. First, because the technical details on how this connectivity works and which smartphones will really be compatible are still too evanescent.
Moreover, the theoretical flows mentioned are what they are: theoretical estimates. In practice, especially at the start of the service, it is likely that the speeds observed by users will be lower. Finally, there is the question of the tariff charged by Starlink. Indeed, SpaceX’s current internet access offers are quite expensive, and therefore lack competitiveness compared to historical players, in urbanized areas and already well covered.
SpaceX soon to be a global mobile operator?
Moreover, from what we understand, what T-Mobile and Starlink want to announce in August 2023 is above all a certain continuity of service in white areas – and not permanent satellite connectivity in town as in poorly covered areas. . However, in the longer term, one can imagine that the situation will end up turning to the advantage of SpaceX to the detriment of conventional operators.
Especially once the Starlink constellation will be dense enough to allow more speeds and reliability. One thinks in particular of an Apple patent which seeks to extend the satellite connectivity of the iPhone. More than a simple emergency contact system, the patent describes a more complete connectivity than on the iPhone 14. The devices would thus be able to exchange data and voice via satellite without limit.
However, even if other players have said they intend to compete with Starlink with their own constellation of satellites, SpaceX has already largely achieved a dominant position in satellite internet access. The Starlink constellation, which is rapidly heading towards a first level of 7,500 units, already has 3,271 satellites.
In total, humanity has put into orbit some 12,293 objects since the start of the space age, which means that in a few years, SpaceX has become the owner of 27% of all satellite objects. Proportion which should only continue to grow faster than its competitors, given that Starlink is backed by the SpaceX launcher allowing a particularly sustained rate of launches.
In September 2022, Starlink had just over 700,000 subscribers worldwide with a recruitment rate of around 100,000 subscribers per month. If SpaceX also delivered smartphone connectivity, we imagine that the service could greatly expand the number of its customers. In any case, it’s a safe bet that Starlink is at the forefront of the concerns of Apple engineers who are working on satellite connectivity for iPhones.