The unparalleled success of the Falcon 9 rocket has led to SpaceX becoming the world’s largest satellite operator in the span of a few years. The company aims to move beyond its Starlink internet service by providing cellular connectivity. There have been questions about possible interference from such a service, but SpaceX has just given the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) a 16-page analysis claiming such fears are overblown. SpaceX wants to move ahead immediately, but the FCC needs to give it the green light.
It’s the FCC’s job, among other things, to ensure that wireless signals in the US don’t clash. In the case of cellular service, it does this by licensing blocks of spectrum in specific geographic areas. Some companies have expressed concern that SpaceX’s orbiting cell towers could cause interference with licensed activities. The FCC asked the company to elaborate on how its proposed cellular service would work, specifically if it can shut off satellites causing interference in the 1.91 to 1.995 GHz band.
The document, which you can read in its entirety courtesy of the FCC, first stresses that interference from Starlink would be “unforeseen and unlikely.” The company claims that it has carefully planned the direct-to-cell system with phased array antennas and efficient beam-planning software that can limit the impact on terrestrial networks. That means Starlink can also prevent unauthorized phone use outside the prescribed service area.
That said, SpaceX confirms that Starlink is designed so that any part of it can be turned off. “SpaceX’s direct-to-cell network and topology software can re-plan the network in near real-time, allowing it to quickly cease operations by all satellites and over any number of geographic areas,” the document reads. The document includes several simulations of the expanded Starlink network, showing how SpaceX can dynamically adjust the network to shield other satellite operators.
SpaceX hopes to cajole the FCC into approving its plans to offer cell service next year. The company previously announced a partnership with T-Mobile to provide service in remote areas that are otherwise unserved. The direct-to-cell service would first offer text messaging, but SpaceX hopes to expand to voice and data via satellite as soon as 2025.
Apple was early to satellite cell service when it launched Emergency SOS on the iPhone 14 with partner Globalstar. Android users were supposed to get a similar feature from Qualcomm, but the company’s Snapdragon Satellite was canceled recently before any phones were released. The proposed T-Mobile service would be available to both Android and iPhone users.