Starlink puts cellphone towers in space, on schedule to connect ordinary smartphones directly to satellites

Leonard Sengere Avatar
Men staring at a phone, Zero-rate, techzim

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.

Also read:

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19 comments

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  1. Nony

    Happy New Year Leonard I hope this year we won’t have to wait for a week without any of your articles.

    1. Tate fx

      Get in line mate.. we’ve been complaining about their consistency in posting since Huawei was using Android

  2. D.K.

    From reading in the past week or so, I understand there are two Starlinks, one of Elon Musk and the other one of the Chinese. Our government seems to be more interested in the latter.
    If it is true that there are two Starlinks, then there may be need, for the sake of clarity, as to which Starlink one will be talking about.
    The other one could be a Fong Kong or a Zhing Zhong.

    1. Pick your poison

      It’s a Coca Cola yePepsi situation. There is only one StarLink, operating under SpaceX. But because they are the most prominent, some people now use their name as a generic term for all LEO internet services. If you saw it in an article, the writer was either being lazy or was trying to create a false equivalence by association.

      But now that it’s been mentioned, I want to ask you guys; would you sign up for the Chinese one? I understand privacy on the net is generally an illusion and that a truly open internet is a thing of the past, but using the Chinese one seems to not only be, without question a complete surrender of every last drop of personal data sovereignty, but an open invitation to state guided manipulation, censorship and reprisals. Given a choice, I don’t think I could do it. Even without choice, I’d be hard pressed to do it.
      Could you do it?

      1. Pick your poison

        Oh my god! D.K. I am sorry! I answered with common sense instead of researching (in my defense, I had no WiFi until now. Thanks zesa). Just about every outlet reporting on it is calling it G60 StarLink as if that’s the official name. A very deliberate choice, given who some of the outlets answer to. Maybe they are doing it so their clients can their citizens they have brought them “StarLink”? 🤷🏿

        Here is what my buddy Bard had to say. Take with a pinch of AI salt:

        The true official name of the Chinese internet constellation project is G60. You may also encounter it referred to as the China Satellite Mega-Constellation Project. While “G60 StarLink” appears in some media coverage, it’s important to remember that this is not an official name and can be misleading, as the two projects are separate entities.

  3. Always Off Topic

    Last mile connectivity, solved? Gov should mandate all MNOs to sign up. Imagine, the boost to our collective development. All this at very little capital cost to us. It’s a no brainer. Even if speed is only at 3G level, it will still be better than the 5G service provided by some MNOs we know. Yes, Leonard , I am talking about your blessers!!!!

    1. Pick your poison

      Lol, good thing the list of potential blessers is very short! Not naming them is almost the same as naming them 😂

      Back on topic, it would be amazing if they all signed up! Coverage almost anywhere, decent service during power cuts… Heck, telecel could sell all it’s hardware on the ground and at the press of a button, have a network better than it was at its previous peak! What a time! It’s a shame business decisions like this aren’t straightforward once certain parties become involved.

  4. F

    This is a badly written article. Very difficult to follow.

    1. Pick your poison

      It seemed pretty straightforward to me. Was it the personal anecdotes that made it hard to follow or the additional context? I get that some just want to get to the point, but then it’s easy with some content like this to end up with articles one or two sentences long.

    2. D.K.

      Please highlight or show where the article is bad so that the writer knows.

  5. Pick your poison

    This can’t come soon enough. Even if it is heavily dependent on unobstructed line of sight, going outside is better than the classic going to the corner by the junction, climbing the tree or climbing the hill or mountain for signal. Besides, as this tech becomes ubiquitous, I’m certain handsets with optimised antennae design will emerge. Lol, we might even see the return of pull out aerials! Roger, over!

  6. TC

    Obviously the government would go with the Chinese,after all they are our all weather friends.We might as well say goodbye to Facebook, YouTube and Whatsapp whilst we are at it,and hello heavy censorship and monitoring.

  7. M2

    “you can’t ever use the service illegally”. How about if one brought a SIM card from an operator in another country who has signed up? It seems much more convenient than importing the Starlink kit

    1. Anonymous

      Geofencing might be an issue in that scenario. Coverage can be software limited to areas where the MNO is licensed to operate and where they have roaming agreements with other licensed operators. If that’s not the case, you can bet existing operators will lobby for it to be so.

  8. The Last Don

    Even if our government prevents our MNOs from signing up or the MNOs themselves refuse to sign up because of selfish interests we will just sign up using outside networks and activate roaming if the cost is permissible. I currently have a South African MTN sim on roaming so if MTN signs up then all of us enterprising Zimbas will start using their sim cards the same way we are using StarLink Zambia and OpenView satellite.

    Nobody is gonna stop us moving with technology.
    💪💪💪💪

    1. fox

      while I think Zambia is a better option considering that South Africa has already refused the entire starlink package on the basis of their version of local indigenization which calls for 30% of the company to belong to historically underprivileged groups… i believe this is a great idea, if there is a hack for the mobile sims, I’ll take it any day!!!

  9. Anonymous

    Bring n come

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  11. FOX

    Great articles bro, we need more of these so that we can at least stay informed, some of us are not comfortable using it until its licensed, its too expensive to just have the police come in and take the kit.

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