Will Starlink replace mobile operators?

In the US, SpaceX has just received permission to expand its Starlink constellation to more than 10,000 satellites in orbit. A few months ago we learned that Starlink had partnered with T-Mobile to provide satellite connectivity to subscribers in white areas of the US.

But on December 6th, in addition to this authorization, SpaceX asked the FCC for permission to equip some of the next 2nd generation satellites launched into orbit with a “direct-to-cellular” antenna that allows communication directly with smartphones on earth.

Starlink will announce a partnership with T-Mobile to eradicate white zones in the US

Depending on demand, the new antenna should allow the service to deliver “talk, messaging and basic internet browsing with theoretical download speeds of either 4.4 Mbps or 18.3 Mbps”. The system should “implement LTE Layer 2 technology”which is called 4G in France.

In other words, the air of nothing – and although the connection will initially be delivered to users via T-Mobile – SpaceX is entering an activity that until now was reserved for mobile operators who own an antenna network. Enough to imagine quite easily how Starlink could eventually turn into some kind of global mobile operator.

What is already shaking up players like Orange, SFR, Bouygues and Free Mobile? Not really in the short term. First, because the technical details of how this connection works and which smartphones will really be compatible are still too volatile.

Moreover, the mentioned theoretical currents are what they are: theoretical estimates. In practice, especially at the start of the service, it is likely that the speeds observed by users will be lower. Finally, there is the question of the rate charged by Starlink. In fact, SpaceX’s current internet access offering is quite expensive and therefore lacks competitiveness compared to historical players, in urbanized areas and already well covered.

SpaceX soon a global mobile operator?

From what we understand, what T-Mobile and Starlink want to announce in August 2023 is above all some continuity of service in white areas – and not permanent satellite connection in the city as in poorly covered areas. . But in the long term, one can imagine that the situation ends up turning in favor of SpaceX to the detriment of conventional operators.

Especially when the Starlink constellation will be dense enough to allow more speeds and reliability. One particularly thinks of an Apple patent that seeks to extend the iPhone’s satellite connection. More than a simple emergency contact system, the patent describes a more complete connection than on the iPhone 14. The devices would thus be able to exchange data and voice via satellite without limits.

But while other players have said they intend to compete with Starlink with their own constellation of satellites, SpaceX has already largely established a dominant position in satellite Internet access. The Starlink constellation, which is fast approaching a first level of 7,500 units, already has 3,271 satellites.

In total, humanity has put about 12,293 objects into orbit since the beginning of the space age, which means that in a few years SpaceX has become the owner of 27% of all satellite objects. Share which should only continue to grow faster than its competitors, given that Starlink is backed by the SpaceX launcher that allows a particularly sustained rate of launches.

As of September 2022, Starlink had just over 700,000 subscribers worldwide, with a recruitment rate of around 100,000 subscribers per month. If SpaceX also provided smartphone connectivity, we imagine the service could greatly expand the number of customers. In any case, it’s certain that Starlink is at the forefront of the concerns of Apple engineers working on satellite connectivity for iPhones.

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