A year ago today, 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 what’s happened since that buzzy announcement?
After the Federal Communications Commission approved a proposal to help satellite providers offer wireless service from space, there’s been a flurry of activity in the last few months — largely from their rivals.
In May, AT&T, T-Mobile’s perennial rival, objected to the service, arguing that the proposed signals may interfere with its cellular network. Dish Network, which previously had a cozy relationship with T-Mobile after acquiring its Boost Mobile prepaid business, earlier filed a petition to get access to Starlink’s 12Ghz spectrum. SpaceX said letting Dish on its spectrum would make its service unusable.
Last week, little-known satellite constellation operator Omnispace filed its opposition to the FCC, arguing that SpaceX has miscalculated the amount of interference it would produce, and said it would harm its own antenna system.
The opposition underscores some of the key obstacles getting in the way of this ambitious project, which promised to close any coverage gaps across the U.S. and its surrounding waters. It’s a noble goal, considering how many dead spots are in the nation, from vast stretches of wilderness to large bodies of water where cell towers can’t go.
The idea would be to build a separate network connected by SpaceX’s Starlink low-earth orbit satellites that would run on a swath of radio airwaves owned by T-Mobile. This network would complement T-Mobile’s own more traditional cellular network. Because that frequency of spectrum is already supported on many populiar phones, it would make for a seamless benefit to most users once it goes live. The companies had targeted beta trials at the end of this year following the launch of Starlink V2 satellites, according to CNET.
But those V2 satellites haven’t gotten approval yet. The companies have largely been tightlipped about the project, and spokespeople for both companies didn’t respond for a request for comment on its state or on the objections.
In July, 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 specrtrums 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.
That letter touched off the latest objection from Omnispace, which is building its own hybrid satellite-ground network to provide 5G and Internet of Things connectivity. Omnispace filed its response and shared a presentation questioning the safety of the proposed SpaceX system. The issues include SpaceX’s consideration of the potential interference from one satellite, as opposed to the impact that comes from the entire network of satellites, as well as the amount of noise interference.
“Using SpaceX’s own questionable antenna performance numbers, and by its own admission, SpaceX interference will be equal to or greater than the noise floor based upon the real noise floor and number of satellites in view,” the company said in the presentation.
SpaceX, meanwhile, has reportedly partnered with content delivery service provider Cloudflare to help boost the speed of its existing service.
Apple’s integration of satellite connectivity through Emergency SOS in the iPhone 14 Pro last year seemed to indicate that satellites may play a bigger role in smartphones in general. But given the back-and-forth that T-Mobile and SpaceX have had to deal with, that kind of ubiquitous coverage promised may be further away than expected.