A little more than a year ago, T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk came together to unveil a partnership to offer a hybrid service that utilized satellites to boost the coverage and range of cellphones, with a promises of expanding coverage and eliminating dead zones for customers.
Fast forward to today, and there’s been nothing but silence from the companies on the project.
Part of the delay is linked to SpaceX’s giant new Starship rocket, which exploded in a test flight in April and has been grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration, according to The Information. That report said that the companies’ cellular ambitions are tied to larger satellites that depend on Starship’s larger 160-foot tall frame for transport.
It’s just the latest wrinkle in a partnership that saw a lot of initial hype, but hasn’t panned out the way either companies had hoped. Since the announcement, T-Mobile and SpaceX faced challenges from rivals like AT&T to little-known satellite constellation operator Omnispace and even Dish Network, which have all expressed concerns about interference. It’s also not the only one to look at a hybrid between cellular and satellite service, with Amazon’s Kuiper project also eyeing this idea.
Despite the promise and the obvious need — there are plenty of dead zones in the US — there’s been little progress.
T-Mobile and SpaceX said they had hoped to launch a trial version of the service by the end of this year. But SpaceX is still working out the technical details and isn’t planning to even conduct satellite-to-cell tests until next year, The Information reported, citing two people familiar with the project. It also noted that SpaceX has come up with smaller satellite to account for the delays in Starship, but those satellites will only limit cellphone users to texting.
While useful, that isn’t a groundbreaking capability, with Apple introducing its Emergency SOS service via satellite on its iPhone 14 last year.
A spokesman for SpaceX wasn’t immediately available to comment on the reported delays. T-Mobile declined to comment.
SpaceX’s Starship, meanwhile, still needs the FAA to clear the craft before the launch. The rocket lost multiple rockets four minutes into its launch in April, forcing operators on the ground to intentionally destroy it. The explosion scattered dust and debris over Boca Chica, Texas, and caused a 3.5-acre fire in Boca Chica State Park. Musk, for his part, says it’s ready to launch again.
Regardless, the interest in this area remains high. AT&T earlier this week made its first 5G cell between a space satellite and an unmodified smartphone. Vodafone is interested in using Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellites.
So even if T-Mobile and SpaceX got out to an early lead, they may see their rivals catch up pretty quickly.