Last year, Starlink announced that it was working on getting smartphones directly connected to its satellites. This is a big deal as we discussed here. You might want to read that if you’re unfamiliar with what I’m talking about here.
As you know, for all Starlink has to offer in a country like Zimbabwe, there is still a huge barrier to entry for most folks. The Starlink kits are priced well above what most Zimbabweans can afford.
Starlink’s Direct-to-Cell service would solve that. All one would need is an LTE-capable smartphone and that is more attainable for low-income Zimbos. Still expensive but much cheaper.
Well, as regards that service, Starlink is right on schedule. As you might remember, they said they would be launching special satellites with LTE nodes for the LTE-in-the-sky service.
Starlink announced that they launched,
… the first six Starlink satellites with Direct to Cell capabilities that enable mobile network operators around the world to provide seamless global access to texting, calling, and browsing wherever you may be on land, lakes, or coastal waters without changing hardware or firmware. The enhanced Starlink satellites have an advanced modem that acts as a cellphone tower in space, eliminating dead zones with network integration similar to a standard roaming partner
They also launched 15 other satellites that do not have the special LTE goodness but we are not talking about those today.
Not yet in Zimbabwe
Listen, I know you’re using Starlink in Zimbabwe even though it’s not licensed yet. However, you won’t be so lucky with Direct-to-Cell because it’s not available over here.
Also, because of how it works, requiring that Starlink work with local mobile network operators, you can’t ever use the service illegally.
For now, Direct-to-Cell will be tested in a partnership with T-Mobile in the USA. Six other MNOs from different countries have signed on to the service. Starlink plans to add other MNOs from across the globe in due course.
Some Direct-to-Cell details
Elon Musk said,
Note, this only supports ~7Mb per beam and the beams are very big, so while this is a great solution for locations with no cellular connectivity, it is not meaningfully competitive with existing terrestrial cellular networks
You will not be hitting the over 100Mbps that Starlink kit users enjoy. However, in Zimbabwe, I would argue whatever actual speeds you experience on phones would compete with terrestrial networks. I know I’m not alone in getting crawling speeds on mobile internet, as your social media posts remind me.
So, over here, Direct-to-Cell would be meaningfully competitive with terrestrial cellular networks.
That’s all years away, unfortunately. Right now, Starlink’s Direct-to-Cell will provide text messaging only when it becomes available later this year, with voice and data service coming in 2025.
A shame about the MNO partnerships
When we talk about places with limited coverage benefitting from Starlink, some folks who won the neigbourhood lottery do not understand that this includes many people in urban areas.
I thought I had it bad because I celebrate getting one bar on my phone whilst two bars call for a party. I recently talked to some people who get no service regularly so much that they are used to it now.
So, you can imagine how these people (and I) wanted Starlink’s Direct-to-Cell service to come in as an alternative to what the MNOs are offering. Not as an add-on service for Econet, NetOne and Telecel.
That’s not to be so we’ll take it and hope it won’t be a paid add-on but will be used by the MNOs to shore up their service delivery.