It’s called Starlink Direct To Cell and it’s a service Starlink plans on rolling out in 2024. Since last year, we have seen the flagship smartphones from Apple and Huawei add direct satellite communication to their devices allowing them to send SMS messages via satellite.
Qualcomm later also announced that it would be adding satellite communication to its latest flagship chipset, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2, allowing the feature to be available on all smartphones running the chipset. So it’s a technology that has already hit the ground running.
How it will work
Starlink already has Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellites hovering close to the earth’s surface. These are currently providing internet services provided you have a Starlink terminal (antenna) and the service is available in your area.
The Direct To Cell service Starlink is working on will use versions of these satellites with an LTE eNodeB module on them. An eNodeB is a standard base station and communication protocol for mobile communication. So to your phone, the satellite is just another LTE base station. This is the crucial part because it means that you don’t need any extra hardware or modified software on your smartphone for you to be able to connect to the Starlink satellite.
Direct to Cell works with existing LTE phones wherever you can see the sky. No changes to hardware, firmware, or special apps are required, providing seamless access to text, voice, and dataStarlink
Unlike the solutions from Apple and Huawei that require your phone to have specific hardware to be able to connect to a satellite, the eNodeB-enabled Starlink satellites will provide a standard LTE connection that any LTE-enabled phone can connect to right now. Whether it’s a $200 Tecno or a $1,000 dollar iPhone. If it has 4G, it will work. This setup is part of the Non-Terrestrial Networks that we talked about in detail in a previous article.
Since this will be an LTE communication system, it means you will need a SIM card for calls, SMSs and data to be routed. But Starlink will not be selling SIM cards. They will instead be partnering up with a local service provider who will integrate its mobile network with the Starlink Direct To Cell system.
This way, the existing mobile operator will have a customer base and accounts that then get satellite communication as an add-on to their already existing mobile plan.
A mobile operator already has an existing network. They then plug this network into the Starlink network through Starlink’s ground station which then provides the mobile operator with access to Starlink’s eNodeB (LTE) satellite network. So to the subscriber of this mobile operator, it’s all just network coverage. The subscriber will not know if they are connected to a terrestrial base station or a Starlink LTE satellite.
At the moment, Starlink has partnered up with 6 operators in 6 different countries.
- T-MOBILE (USA)
- OPTUS (AUSTRALIA)
- ROGERS (CANADA)
- ONE NZ (NEW ZEALAND)
- KDDI (JAPAN)
- SALT (SWITZERLAND)
The Direct to Cell service will initially offer text when it is rolled out in late 2024 with voice, data, and IoT device support slated for 2025.
A couple of FAQs
Once a mobile operator integrates with Starlink’s Direct to Cell service, they will, in theory, have 100% network coverage in the region in which they operate. So in as much as Starlink has Global coverage, the limitations that currently exist with mobile operators with regards to their region of operation will still exist. If you go to another country you will need to activate roaming.
Direct to Cell service, just like any other satellite-based communication system, works best when the device has a clear view of the sky. So such a service will not work indoors.
Potential solution to Africa’s connectivity challenges
We have spoken a lot about how Starlink’s satellite internet service is a true gem for those living in the remote parts of Africa who need reliable and affordable internet. Whilst this is still true, the barrier of entry is very high looking at the cost of the kits. In countries where the service is available in Africa, they are retailing for around US$500 with monthly subscriptions averaging US$50. And it’s restricted to just the internet.
Direct to Cell is a more approachable solution especially for the marginalized parts of Africa as all you need is a SIM card and an LTE-capable smartphone. All of which can be less than $150. Such a service can mean that a mobile operator can instantly capture a sizeable chunk of the rural population which for Africa sits at 57% of the continent’s population. And for Zimbabwe, that rural population is 67% of the total population.
In as much as Starlink is facing some legislative resistance in some markets, there are some interesting opportunities it is proposing towards bridging that digital divide in what seems to be very meaningful ways.
- 5G is terrible right now. But it has a very useful and exciting future
- Tell your MP that this is why people are excited about Starlink – access, affordability, reliability
- AMN using Starlink to expand mobile networks in underserved parts of Africa
- Who faces the biggest threat from Starlink? It’s not the MNOs