SpaceX has started the new year with a bang, launching 21 Starlink satellites on its Falcon 9 rocket on Tuesday night. The launch, which took place from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, marked the debut of the direct-to-cell (DTC) feature on six satellites.
The DTC feature will allow mobile phones to connect directly to the Starlink satellites without ground infrastructure. This will enable users to access voice, text, and data services anywhere, even in remote areas or disaster zones.
Earlier, SpaceX was granted permission by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to conduct a pilot project for its Starlink mobile service. The project will test the use of satellites to provide internet access to smartphones across the US using T-Mobile’s spectrum to send data to unmodified phones on the ground via Starlink satellites.
The FCC granted SpaceX an “experimental special temporary authorization” for 180 days, or until June 14 next year, with the approval coming a week after the company received a partial nod to deploy the Starlink mobile service. However, the initial approval restricted SpaceX from doing any other testing besides checking the functionality of the satellite antennas.
SpaceX had originally planned to launch this mission in mid-December but faced some technical issues that delayed the launch.
The company’s founder and CEO, Elon Musk, said on X that the DTC feature was a “massive game changer” that would eliminate the problem of cellular dead zones. He also clarified that the DTC feature was not meant to compete with existing terrestrial networks, as it only supported about 7 megabits per second per beam, and the beams were very large.
SpaceX said in a statement that the DTC feature would “enable mobile network operators around the world to provide seamless global access to texting, calling and browsing… on land, lakes or coastal waters.”
Musk and T-Mobile’s CEO and President, Mike Sievert, announced the partnership between the two companies in August 2022. Sievert said that the upcoming service in the U.S. would use the existing T-Mobile mid-band PCS spectrum, which was already compatible with most phones in the market.
“That allows us to then dedicate that, working together, to the constellation that Starlink operates so that we are seeing those satellites from every corner of the country,” Sievert said. “If you have a clear view of the sky, our vision is you’re connected.”
He added that the phones would not know they were connecting to space, as they would use the same industry-standard technology and protocols as they would for terrestrial networks.
SpaceX plans to launch about 840 more DTC-capable satellites over the next six months to achieve a critical mass of satellites for commercial service by late 2024. The company has requested the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to grant it a launch license for all 7500 satellites in its direct-to-cell modification application, according to an email sent by SpaceX’s director of satellite policy, Jameson Dempsey, to the FCC’s acting division chief of satellite licensing, Kathyrn Medley, on November 30, 2023. Interesting Engineering