SpaceX has demonstrated its new “Direct to Cell” capabilities by exchanging texts between mobile phones on Earth using satellites in orbit.
On 2 January 2024, SpaceX launched six new satellites designed to connect with standard unmodified mobile devices. The company wasted no time putting them into service, transmitting texts less than a week later using T-Mobile’s cellular spectrum.
Receiving replies from the orbiting satellites proves SpaceX has closed the link budget to establish reliable two-way communications. Direct to Cell builds on their Starlink broadband constellation by expanding global connectivity options to the billions of existing 4G LTE phones and devices.
Initially, Direct to Cell will provide text messaging followed by voice, data, and IoT services in 2025. SpaceX claims the system will work without any upgrades, new hardware, or needing to install an app.
Achieving compatibility with consumer devices not designed for satellite links presented unique engineering hurdles. SpaceX developed custom components so the satellites can transmit radio signals strong enough to reach phones but weak enough to avoid interference.
Texting was an early focus because it has the highest chance of success. Latency constraints pose greater challenges for voice, nevermind streaming HD video. But the breakthrough demonstration of short message services validates the underlying system works.
Leveraging their Starlink infrastructure minimises costs for SpaceX and enables global coverage. The satellites can link to each other using Starlink’s laser backhaul before reaching a ground station. Traffic routes through Starlink’s core network directly to each partner operator’s systems.
Regulatory approvals will dictate the rollout pace as testing expands this year. However, with rocket reusability and in-house satellite production—SpaceX claims it’s able to scale extremely fast.
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