SpaceX and T-Mobile US Announce Roaming Partnership Setting Stage for 6G

T-Mobile US CEO Mike Sievert and SpaceX Founder Elon Musk shared the stage at SpaceX in Texas to announce plans for a 2023 beta service to allow T-Mobile customers to roam to Starlink satellite service using existing phones. Without saying it explicitly, it appears that SpaceX has a US-territory exclusive relationship with T-Mobile US (or at least for a certain time-limit), because T-Mobile is “loaning” (Sievert’s words) its contiguous full-US-coverage mid-band spectrum to SpaceX to allow the service; based on this description, we assume this means T-Mobile’s 2.5 GHz spectrum that it got when it acquired Sprint. We further assume that T-Mobile is well positioned with SpaceX because AT&T is an equity investor in publicly-traded AST Mobile, which will launch a single satellite by the end of 2022 to enable roaming services.

How will the system work? Based on today’s presser, the service will work with existing phones, or at least, according to Sievert, that vast majority of phones. Initially, which we take to mean during 2023 and probably 2024 when there are a small number of “Gen 2” or “V2” Starlink satellites above the earth, the service will be adequate for messaging, MMS, and specific messaging applications. As the number of Gen 2 satellites increases, data and voice services will be available. Each Gen 2 satellite will provide 2-4 Mbps per cell zone, allowing 1,000 to 2,000 voice calls or 100’s thousands of messages. The Gen 2 satellite is larger than its currently operating satellites and will only fit in the Starship rocket which hasn’t yet been launched. SpaceX might create a Gen 2 “mini” that would be slightly smaller and would fit in its current generation of rockets called Falcon 9.

Musk, wearing an “Occupy Mars” t-shirt at the event, hinted that the Starlink 3GPP service is inadequate for urban and suburban service. Additionally, the preview video ahead of the conference said that 20% of US acreage is not cellular covered and suggested that it is 1/2M square miles. We see some wiggle room between suburbia and the “unserved” region that one might assume could be served adequately by either satellite or terrestrial service. We see this as critical to the ongoing discussion about how new carriers or future architectures evolve. For the next couple of years, we’re just talking about messaging, which, let’s be fair, isn’t 5G – one could argue it’s from the 2G, 3G, or 4G-era. Later on, once there are enough satellites available from either SpaceX, AST Mobile, Kuiper (Amazon), OneWeb or others, we will be dealing with more bandwidth because there will be more satellites. By this time, let’s say 2025, we’ll be dealing with 3GPP advancements that’ll likely be referred to as 6G. We expect that 6G architectures will largely vary by which radio/antennae systems provide coverage in non-urban areas.

We publish a report called Broadband Satellite, which includes forecasts for GEO, LEO, and 3GPP satellite (which was announced today by SpaceX and T-Mobile US and is also planned by AST Mobile and others).