A year ago, T-Mobile and SpaceX unveiled a partnership to combine the former’s spectrum with the latter’s network of low-orbit satellites for more comprehensive wireless coverage, an initiative they coined “Coverage Above and Beyond.” But with SpaceX’s Starlink service getting ready to test sending and receiving calls and texts from space, AT&T and the Rural Wireless Association are trying to delay the plans as they ask the FCC to make changes.
T-Mobile had planned to build a separate network connected to upcoming second-generation low-Earth orbit satellites that SpaceX wants to launch as early as December 1. The joint venture would use existing spectrum that T-Mobile owns, which would allow existing users to tap into this network once it goes public. The companies had targeted beta trials at the end of this year following the launch of the Starlink V2 satellites, according to CNET.
The initiative is just one of many space-based cellular joint ventures that promise to widen the scope of coverage and virtually eliminate dead zones. But the race hasn’t been without challenges, with rivals throwing obstacles in front of each other. AT&T has been among the more vocal opponents.
In May, AT&T and the Rural Wireless Association asked the Federal Communications Commission for more technical details from the Space X plan to ensure that it didn’t interfere with other cellular service.
Two months later, David Goldman, vice president of satellite policy at SpaceX, sent a letter to the FCC extolling the benefits of the partnership and how it would protect other spectrum users. He urged the agency to approve the modifications of its second-generation satellites to enable wireless coverage.
“SpaceX and T-Mobile look forward to making the promise of ubiquitous mobile coverage a reality, and appreciate the Commission’s stated commitment to expeditiously process applications for direct-to-cellular capabilities while it considers longer-term rules,” Goldman said.
Earlier this month, Space X filed a special temporary authority application to get those second-generation satellites up in the air. This would allow it to bypass some of the normal waivers required to clear the satellite launches.
In response, AT&T and the Rural Wireless Association last week filed complaints with the FCC over the applications. This comes just a few weeks after AT&T successfully tested its own call from space using AST SpaceMobile’s low-Earth orbit satellite and equipment from Samsung and Nokia. According to the filing, AT&T and the trade group argued that Space X shouldn’t get a STA and bypass the usual waivers, and that the company needed to go through the proper procedure.
“Experimental authorizations allow for testing in a real world environment and are the proper vehicle for determining if the novel use of terrestrial spectrum being used by SpaceX as described in the waivers on file are developed in a manner that can prevent interference to other licensed networks,” said Carri Bennet, general counsel for the Rural Wireless Association. “SpaceX’s desire to plow through and obtain Special Temporary Authority so that it can begin commercial operations to customers prior to the completion of the FCC’s rulemaking and analysis raises a huge red flag. Once you start offering a service to the public, it is difficult to take it away.”
T-Mobile and SpaceX are hoping to test this technology in December, but for now they need to wait for the FCC to approve the launch.
SpaceX is also hoping to find more mobile providers who will join T-Mobile in building this service, which is still in its early days.
SpaceX, T-Mobile, and the Rural Wireless Association couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.