Aug 30, 2022 - Science

The space race for our cellphones

Illustration of a smartphone as a rocket hurtling through space.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Young satellite companies say they're on the precipice of blanketing the planet with cellphone service.

Why it matters: If they succeed, their technology could eliminate dead zones and provide more reliable coverage to millions of people.

Driving the news: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert late last week announced plans to start delivering service through SpaceX's Starlink by the end of next year in the United States.

  • Only text and certain messaging capabilities will be available in the beginning, with the goal of adding voice and data down the line.
  • "We’ve all read about someone who was hiking, got lost, or died of thirst or exposure,” Musk said during the announcement event, adding that this service will help in those types of situations.

How it works: New satellites equipped with larger and more powerful antennas will pick up signals from cellphones directly, rather than relying on cell towers.

  • Sievert described the vision as putting cell towers in the sky, but "a lot harder."
  • The partnership would effectively enable cellphones to do what satellite phones can do, Jon Peha, former FCC chief technologist and professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, tells Axios.
  • "They're no longer separate devices. It's one device that does both," he said.

State of play: AST SpaceMobile and Lynk are other major competitors working to make cell coverage direct from space a reality.

  • Project Kuiper, from Amazon, is working with Verizon on an effort to provide rural communities with wireless coverage via thousands of satellites.
  • Rumors are also swirling that Apple might be set to announce its own direct-to-satellite iPhone partnership with Globalstar next week.

What they're saying: "The human race is becoming less and less tolerant of being disconnected," AT&T CEO John Stankey told Axios in an interview. "There's a market out there to keep people connected all the time."

  • Stankey declined to share details about any plans from AT&T, but added, "I think we'll see the market develop where there's a variety of different alternatives and solutions."

The ultimate goal is to offer high-speed mobile internet access via satellite.

  • "No one company or even a number of these companies [will] be able to meet all the needs," Peha said.

The intrigue: With SpaceX dominating the rocket launch industry right now, "co-opetition" could drive success for all players.

  • "We're glad that they [SpaceX and T-Mobile] have shown attention to this, but we always thought this was going to be a multiple party market," AST chief strategy officer Scott Wisniewski tells Axios. "This is not a winner take all market given how big it is."

What's next: SpaceX and T-Mobile will need regulatory approval from the Federal Communications Commission for their plans.

Editor's note: This article has been corrected to reflect that Musk is CEO of SpaceX, not a co-founder.

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