Starlink's new cellular service lets you stay connected even off the grid

Starlink Direct to Cell text message
(Image credit: Starlink)

Starlink is expanding its satellite communications to your pocket. Now, in addition to delivering an internet connection anywhere around the world, Starlink is set to start offering cellular connectivity next year through a brand new service called Starlink Direct to Cell.

The company will start off small as LTE phones will only have the ability to send text messages sometime in 2024. After that, the service will expand to allow sending voice calls and data plus support for IoT devices like smartwatches in 2025. Starlink states customers won’t need a different phone, a firmware update, or a special app. The service will work on current devices even in the most remote locations on Earth – provided “you can see the sky”. There can’t be anything getting in the way of the satellite’s signal. 

Speaking of which, Starlink says it will be deploying “satellites with the Direct to Cell capability at scale” on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. It appears Direct to Cell will mainly be for businesses that want remote cellular connectivity. At the time of this writing, the service isn’t present on the company’s Personal usage website.

Made in collaboration

If any of this sounds familiar to you, that’s because billionaire Elon Musk, who is the CEO of parent company SpaceX, and T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert announced plans for Direct to Cell last year although it wasn’t given a name yet. Sivert explained the connection will be available in “the lower 48 [of the United States], …vast parts of Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and territorial waters.” The areas covered include national parks plus certain terrains where it's tough to get a cell phone signal like the desert.

Since that talk, SpaceX has entered new partnerships with other telecommunication companies from around the world like Rogers Communications in Canada as well as Optus in Australia

T-Mobil;e CEO Mike Sievert and Elon Musk

(Image credit: T-Mobile and Starlink)

Potential beta

What’s interesting is in T-Mobile’s press release from August 2022, it mentions there will be a beta program in select areas by the end of 2023. “SMS, MMS, and participating messaging apps” were supposed to be part of the program. However, Starlink's website doesn’t say anything about a beta, leading us to believe that maybe the idea was scrapped. Perhaps it just wasn’t ready yet.

Normally, we would ask Starlink or SpaceX for more information, but they don’t have any way for members of the press to contact them. Instead, we reached out to T-Mobile for more information; specifically on the beta and whether or not it’s still happening. This story will be updated at a later time.

It’s unknown exactly when everything will go live in 2024. SpaceX has been pushing the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to hurry up with processing their satellite applications. But according to Commission Chair Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC has over 56,000 satellite applications pending on their desk, so it’s probably going to be a while.

If you want to know what the future holds, check out TechRadar's coverage of how satellite connectivity could become a major feature for smartphones.

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Cesar Cadenas

Cesar Cadenas has been writing about the tech industry for several years now specializing in consumer electronics, entertainment devices, Windows, and the gaming industry. But he’s also passionate about smartphones, GPUs, and cybersecurity.