SpaceX founder Elon Musk has promised there will be ‘no dead zones anywhere in the world for your cell phone’ – but there’s not much substance on offer yet.
Yesterday Musk and T-Mobile CEO and President Mike Sievert (pictured) took to the stage at SpaceX’s launch facility to deliver a much hyped announcement of how the two firms plan to work together on eliminating mobile dead-zones across the US, and elsewhere.
The plan has a name: Coverage Above and Beyond. Put simply, the firms plan to ‘bring cell phone connectivity everywhere’ – which as projects go is no small potatoes. The idea is phones on T-Mobile’s network get hooked up to Starlink, SpaceX’s constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, which they claim will provide coverage ‘even in many of the most remote locations previously unreachable by traditional cell signals.’
But that was just the first of many caveats accompanying this softest of launches.
“We’ve always thought differently about what it means to keep customers connected, and that’s why we’re working with the best to deliver coverage above and beyond anything customers have ever seen before,” said Sievert. “More than just a ground breaking alliance, this represents two industry-shaking innovators challenging the old ways of doing things to create something entirely new that will further connect customers and scare competitors.”
Musk added: “The important thing about this is that it means there are no dead zones anywhere in the world for your cell phone. We’re incredibly excited to do this with T-Mobile.”
America, as they say, is a big country. Vast stretches of mountain and desert areas do not have coverage (the firms put it at about 20% of the land mass) and there will be various reasons for this, the most obvious presumably being people don’t tend to live on top of mountains or in the middle of Death Valley, so it’s hardly worth going to the trouble of setting up masts there. Usually for ‘dead zones’ like this you’d need a satellite phone, and what T-Mobile and SpaceX are promising is that you will be able to connect with your bog-standard mobile. Or as the release puts it: ‘the service aims to work with the phone already in your pocket’ – spot the second caveat there – aims.
The firms intend to create a new network which is broadcast from Starlink’s satellites using T-Mobile’s mid-band spectrum nationwide, and this satellite-to-cellular service will, according to the release: “provide nearly complete coverage almost anywhere a customer can see the sky… with this technology, T-Mobile is planning to give customers text coverage practically everywhere in the continental US…”
This is perhaps the main caveat in the whole announcement – the firms appear to only be tangibly talking about texting for now – which is a bit of a step down from eliminating all dead zones. In terms of anything beyond texting, we are told: ‘Afterwards, the companies plan to pursue the addition of voice and data coverage.’ Fine – but ‘plans to pursue’ is a bit vague as a corporate sentiment. A company can be hemorrhaging money but plan to pursue profit.
There isn’t a clear launch date to speak of either, but Sievert said on stage that just the messaging function ‘will enter beta we believe as soon as late next year.’
There was also talk of expanding this dead-zone eliminating service globally – in a way. During the performance the CEOs issued ‘an open invitation to the world’s carriers to collaborate’. Again, fine but that’s not really an announcement of anything and certainly makes Musk’s statement of ‘it means there are no dead zones anywhere in the world for your cell phone’ seem a bit premature. It’s not even as substantial as saying ‘we are talking to operators globally in order to expand the service one day.’
In the hours since the announcement Musk put out the following tweet, adding another qualification:
Note, connectivity will be 2 to 4 Mbits per cell zone, so will work great for texting & voice calls, but not high bandwidth
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 26, 2022
Coverage Above and Beyond is fitting name for the service/project/agreement since it sounds almost like a sci-fi movie title. Complete with cinematic style dramatic teaser trailers and the Space X launch pads in the background, the whole thing doesn’t feel a million miles away from those teaser events movie execs put on, parading up and down on stage announcing their inherently vague intentions for Phase 6 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or 400 more Star Wars films, to the rapturous applause of fans and press.
As we’ve alluded to, there are a few flies in the ointment with the headline message that the firms are gunning for – that they will hook up existing phones to satellites in order to provide coverage anywhere. Boiling it right down, the only tangible announcement is that they will be testing texts in certain remote areas of the US, but it’s not clear exactly when. Proper rollout of this across the country is only listed as an intention, and data and mobile coverage is one step removed from that, as is anything at all outside the US.
‘We’d love to have T-Mobile on Mars’ quipped Musk on stage – you certainly can’t knock them for lack of ambition. The project does sound interesting and if what is described is delivered particularly globally, that will represent a real technological step forward in the geo-communications. However the tone and language of the announcement is as if the service is about to launch, which it isn’t, or at least that they’ve built something to show, which they haven’t. In order to get the feel of a launch, which is actually an announcement of an intended collaboration, the firms have had to smuggle in a lot of qualifications.
There’s nothing wrong with talking about aspirations, or giving details of a plan that’s in the works. Sometimes firms do announce a ‘memorandum of understanding’, but they rarely gather whooping crowds to a physical event and wax lyrical about it all the things they are thinking about building. Perhaps they are just capitalising on Elon Musk’s star appeal, which you can’t blame them for if they are trying to draw attention/investment to the whole thing, but as good as the idea sounds, it seems a bit premature to be boasting about it with such bombast.