SpaceX, T-Mobile Target Mobile Dead Zones

August 29, 2022

In a live event, T-Mobile CEO and President Mike Sievert and SpaceX Chief Engineer Elon Musk announced Coverage Above and Beyond: a breakthrough new plan to bring cell phone connectivity everywhere. Leveraging Starlink, SpaceX’s constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, and T-Mobile’s industry-leading wireless network, the Un-carrier plans to provide near complete coverage in most places in the U.S. – even in many of the most remote locations previously unreachable by traditional cell signals.

Today, despite powerful LTE and 5G wireless networks, well over half a million square miles of the U.S. in addition to vast stretches of ocean are untouched by cell signals … from ANY provider. And as anyone who has ever encountered a mobile dead zone knows, the wireless industry has struggled to cover these areas with traditional terrestrial cellular technology, most often due to land-use restrictions (e.g. National Parks), terrain limits (e.g. mountains, deserts and other topographical realities) and America’s sheer vastness. In those areas, people are either disconnected or pay exorbitant rates to lug around a sat phone. SpaceX and T-Mobile share a vision where these uncovered areas are a relic of the past, and today, the companies are taking a first step to make that vision a reality.

From the middle of Death Valley to the Great Smokey Mountains or even that persistent neighborhood dead zone, T-Mobile and SpaceX have a vision to give customers a crucial additional layer of connectivity in areas previously unreachable by cell signals from any provider. And the service aims to work with the phone already in your pocket. The vast majority of smartphones already on T-Mobile’s network will be compatible with the new service using the device’s existing radio. No extra equipment to buy. It just works.

“We’ve always thought differently about what it means to keep customers connected, and that’s why we’re working with the best to deliver coverage above and beyond anything customers have ever seen before,” said Mike Sievert, CEO of T-Mobile. “More than just a groundbreaking alliance, this represents two industry-shaking innovators challenging the old ways of doing things to create something entirely new that will further connect customers and scare competitors.”

“The important thing about this is that it means there are no dead zones anywhere in the world for your cell phone,” said SpaceX Chief Engineer Elon Musk. “We’re incredibly excited to do this with T-Mobile.”

Tammy Parker, Principal Analyst at GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company, offers her view:

“The agreement between T-Mobile and SpaceX is a milestone in enabling emergency communications from remote locations devoid of terrestrial cell towers. The service is intended primarily for use in remote areas that are cellular dead zones, with the satellite fully emulating a cell tower, but with a much larger cell size. However, it does not alter the overall competitive landscape among US mobile operators or the need for national and international roaming agreements to support service in places served by other carriers.

“Additionally, service will initially be restricted to SMS, MMS, and certain partner messaging applications. It will not include data or voice out of the gate, highlighting the fact that this service will primarily be targeted at emergency messaging when it launches.

“T-Mobile is putting its Un-carrier spin on the news as the service is being referred to as ‘Coverage Above & Beyond,’ playing off of its ‘Coverage Beyond’ international roaming and travel perks program that was disclosed in June, but at their core the two announcements have little in common. Nonetheless, it is big news that because the Starlink-supported satellite-to-cellular service will ride on T-Mobile’s mid-band spectrum, most phones on T-Mobile’s network will be able to connect to the remote service. Plus, T-Mobile has pledged to include the service at no extra charge in its most popular plans, which will be appealing to people who expect to find themselves in areas with spotty or non-existent terrestrial cellular coverage.

“There could eventually end up being dueling satellite-to-cellular offers in the US, given that Verizon and Amazon’s Project Kuiper announced in October 2021 plans to deliver connectivity to unserved and underserved US communities, though that effort is initially focused on providing cellular backhaul solutions to extend Verizon’s service reach, and, at least as announced, is not aimed at powering remote communications nationwide.”

Emma Mohr-McClune, Technology Service Director at GlobalData, offers her view:

“It’s important to see this announcement for what it is: A call to partnership action. T-Mobile will eventually want to position Coverage Above & Beyond as an extension of its roaming proposition, much in the same way that it has moved to differentiate this recently with in-flight connectivity, AAA insurance and travel discounts. But to be able to offer this form of emergency or remote service back-up internationally, SpaceX will need to attract dozens of carriers from other markets. We’re clearly a long way off that scenario.”

To provide this service, the companies will create a new network, broadcast from Starlink’s satellites using T-Mobile’s mid-band spectrum nationwide. This true satellite-to-cellular service will provide nearly complete coverage almost anywhere a customer can see the sky.

With this technology, T-Mobile is planning to give customers text coverage practically everywhere in the continental US, Hawaii, parts of Alaska, Puerto Rico and territorial waters, even outside the signal of T-Mobile’s network starting with a beta in select areas by the end of next year after SpaceX’s planned satellite launches. Text messaging, including SMS, MMS and participating messaging apps, will empower customers to stay connected and share experiences nearly everywhere. Afterwards, the companies plan to pursue the addition of voice and data coverage.

In addition, the CEOs shared their vision for expanding Coverage Above and Beyond globally, issuing an open invitation to the world’s carriers to collaborate for truly global connectivity. T-Mobile committed to offer reciprocal roaming to those providers working with them to enable this vision.

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