What does the deal between Starlink and T-Mobile mean for us in Canada?
If you’ve ever taken a road trip across the Trans-Canada Highway, you probably know what it feels like to lose cell service – having no bars often means no streaming music, no texting and no calling. While it can be a bummer to be prevented from playing tunes in the car, serious complications can arise when you’re cut off from the rest of the world and emergency situations can quickly go from bad to worse.
Enter Elon Musk. On August 25th, the SpaceX Chief Engineer made a special announcement alongside T-Mobile CEO and President Mike Sievert: Coverage Above and Beyond, a “breakthrough new plan to bring cell phone connectivity everywhere.” The two companies explained they will be combining their technology – Starlink’s low Earth orbit satellites with the cellular provider’s wireless network – to provide complete coverage for most places in the United States, even those that are significantly remote and were previously unreachable and unserviceable by traditional cell signals.
As it stands, more than half a million square miles in the U.S. (somewhere around 1/5th of the country) have no cell service. Known also as mobile dead zones, it is impossible to get any bars or make any calls from these areas. While telecommunication companies have been relying on terrestrial fibre options to build up and expand service areas south of the border, there are several barriers in their way – things like land restrictions (National Parks), harsh terrain (mountains), and the sheer amount of how much ground there is to cover. Typically, the only option for getting in touch with the rest of the world from a dead zone is by using a satellite (“sat”) phone, which are both notoriously expensive and cumbersome to lug around.
“The important thing about this is that it means there are no dead zones anywhere in the world for your cell phone,” said Musk. “It’s going to massively improve people’s convenience and it’s going to save lives.”
Along with T-Mobile’s Sievert, he and SpaceX are calling the technology true satellite-to-cellular service, saying that any customers capable of seeing the sky will be able to pick up a signal. While the beta test for the project isn’t expected to begin until late 2023 after more Starlink V2 satellites can be launched into space, the two tech moguls confirmed their vision for Coverage Above and Beyond is global, complete with an invitation for other carriers to hop aboard and help provide “the ultimate coverage experience.” Touting the majesty of their new iPhone 14, Apple has already thrown their name into the hat.
So, this begs the question – what does this mean for Canadians?
You can bet Canadian telecommunication service providers like Bell, Rogers, and Telus are chomping at the bit to get involved and provide universal cell coverage in partnership with Starlink. It goes without saying that connectivity, or more specifically, terrestrial fibre infrastructure is generally less developed here in Canada than it is in America (even though we tend to spend 15-40 per cent more for our phone plans than our neighbours to the south). Canada is, after all, the world’s second largest country by area, so it may not be surprising that our coverage is stretched pretty thin – in fact, less than a third of our country’s nearly 10 million square kilometres currently have any cell service.
Here’s the not so great news. Despite how badly Canadian telecommunication companies might want to provide their customers with ultimate coverage, the reality is that such partnerships with SpaceX could be a long way off. In Canada, the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is responsible for administrating the necessary permissions for deals and initiatives such as these, such as when they first gave the greenlight for Starlink to operate in Canada two years ago (a decision FSET was very closely involved with!).
As one might expect – and especially coming off the massive Rogers service outage back in July that left millions without service – the CRTC is generally very busy handling new ideas and sorting out old ones. At the same time, the Canadian government has already officially committed to endeavours like ensuring every citizen has high-speed internet and slashing the costs associated with wireless plans, so it’s certainly a possibility that officials could decide partnering up with SpaceX and joining Coverage Above and Beyond isn’t merely an option, but a necessity.
As is the case with most things, only time will tell. Which Canadian service provider do you think will be one to end up answering Musk’s call?
- The beta test for Coverage Above and Beyond is scheduled to begin in 2023 in the United States alone, but the door is open for other countries and parts of the world to join in down the line
- The service is set to launch with coverage only for text messaging (SMS, MMS) and participating messaging apps, but it is expected that voice and data coverage will eventually be integrated
- The service is also expected to be coming to Tesla cars, for drivers who are signed up for the auto company’s Premium Connectivity option
- While the coverage is expected to be expansive, Musk has gone on the record to say that the strength will be somewhere in the realm of 2 to 4 Mbps per cell zone, which does not qualify as a high bandwidth signal
- T-Mobile CEO and President Mike Sievert has not ruled out that the service will carry an additional (albeit inexpensive) fee for those wishing to add it to their data plans – though this doesn’t mean that his fellow service providers, such as those in Canada, will follow suit or charge extra
- SpaceX is planning on launching the necessary second-generation satellites into low Earth orbit sometime in early 2023 – each one is bigger than the current model and equipped with more powerful antennae (themselves spanning roughly 25 square metres each). The V2 satellites are set to launch into space aboard SpaceX’s giant Starship rocket!
- Several other companies, such as Lynk and AST SpaceMobile have already dabbled with this kind of technology, but none so far have had the kind of coverage that SpaceX can provide