On paper, the project looks attractive. Last Thursday, the American operator T-Mobile and SpaceX, the company of billionaire Elon Musk, announced a technological alliance that aims to eradicate, once and for all, white areas around the world. The ad looks revolutionary. No telecommunications operator today is able to cover the entire area of a national territory with its mobile network. In the United States as in Europe, many areas are devoid of relay antennas. These are usually the less populated for economic reasons. When there is no antennait is logically impossible to communicate with a smartphone over a conventional 3G, 4G or 5G cellular network.
But T-Mobile and SpaceX claim to have found a solution. A miraculous recipe indeed. Their idea? Using T-Mobile frequencies and Starlink satellites, the constellation of Elon Musk’s group, to allow everyone to communicate with their smartphones when cellular networks are unreachable. This solution will be available for the first time in the United States by the end of next year, they announced. At the same time, it invited other operators around the world to join this initiative. “The important thing is that this means no more dead zones, anywhere in the world, for your phone”welcomed Elon Musk at a press conference.
a niche service
That said, many observers are now skeptical about the feasibility of this solution. First, some criticize its relevance. This service is already intended to be a niche service. It’s not about bringing high or a lot of speed in the white zones. But only, as T-Mobile and SpaceX explain, to allow for very basic communications – that is, text messages and perhaps some data – if conditions allow. Concretely, the user must be in an open area, and that for up to 30 minutes, the time that a satellite passes above him. A hiker who has broken his leg in the middle of a natural park not covered by traditional networks can, for example, call the emergency services. This service will allow “to save lives”, argues Elon Musk. However, it does not offer ultimatelyonly limited outlets…
Furthermore, this solution will be, from a technical and regulatory point of view, difficult to implement. “Starlink’s current 2,800 satellites are not designed to use T-Mobile or the frequencies of any other telecom operator”, notes a consultant specializing in telecommunications. Currently, these satellites only work with a specialized Starlink terminal to provide high-speed fixed Internet service. But they are unable to communicate with a smartphone. According to Elon Musk, the next generation of Starlink satellites will be a game changer. Heavier and larger, these, called Gen2, will have antennas operating with the so-called “medium” frequencies – such as those in the 2 GHz band that T-Mobile will have to dedicate to this new communication service.
A business model to be specified
Some doubt, in this regard, that this new solution will be fully operational within a year, as SpaceX and T-Mobile intend. On the other hand, they will have to have, upstream, the approval of the telecommunications regulator in the United States. What is not gained. Other operators will undoubtedly put obstacles in their way, considering, inter alia, that their service constitutes a source of interference. SpaceX will face these same difficulties in all other countries where it intends to deploy its communication solution. He will first have to find operators who agree to dedicate part of their frequencies to him. So get the green light from regulatory authorities each time.
The business model of this service also raises questions. For an operator, making part of its frequencies available, often bought at exorbitant prices, is not easy. ” In the United States, a 10 MHz block for national coverage is worth US$7 billion, based on the most recent transaction in the secondary spectrum marketsays our consultant. Either the service business model announced by the two companies is very profitable for T-Mobile USA, or the operator will ‘immobilize’ a precious asset without clear compensation. » But T-Mobile has already decided to include this satellite communication solution for free in most of its packages… We can therefore ask ourselves how the operator will monetize this new service.