SpaceX, T-Mobile stir excitement in the wireless world

It’s been a slow summer in the trade press covering the wireless industry. The hype over 5G is subsiding, and 6G is still just a glimmer. But last night’s announcement from SpaceX and T-Mobile sent a blast of new excitement into the wireless world.

The companies plan to use a dedicated slice of T-Mobile’s mid-band 1.9 GHz PCS spectrum. And they’ll place base-station-type equipment on Starlink satellites, which will connect earthlings in remote locations with cellular service.

TMF Analyst Tim Farrar, a consultant in satellite communications, quickly said on Twitter that the T-Mobile/SpaceX plan is a copycat of what AST SpaceMobile is doing.

AST has already developed patented technology to connect base-stations in space with regular cell phones on Earth. And AST has relationships with AT&T, Vodafone and Rakuten Mobile.

AST CEO Abel Avellan said on LinkedIn, “Elon and Mike helped the world focus attention on the huge market opportunity for SpaceMobile, the only planned space-based cellular broadband network.”

Although the presentation last night had the feel of embarking on a Star Wars adventure, Farrar noted on Twitter that “Given how many half-formed concepts were put forward, the only possible conclusion is that this was designed to pre-empt next week's Apple announcement of their own free messaging service with Globalstar. That should begin as soon as the new phone is released.”

Globalstar and Apple

In a conversation with Fierce, Farrar explained that Globalstar and Apple have never made any official announcement that they’re working together. But Globalstar has been transparent about its efforts to build replacement satellites and gateway infrastructure in different countries around the world to offer a two-way messaging service. Farrar said “by a process of elimination” and the fact that “Globalstar’s comments match very closely with Apple’s contemplations for the iPhone,” it’s largely assumed that Apple will announce a satellite messaging service with Globalstar at its iPhone 14 launch on September 7.

Rumors flew at last year’s event that Apple would work with Globalstar on a satellite messaging service. But no announcement materialized.

However, the invitation for this year’s event features a graphic with a space theme.

Farrar notes that Apple will be using existing satellite spectrum that Globalstar has rights to on a global basis. And it won’t require any rule changes from the FCC. But the service will be limited just to two-way texting, not voice calls or photos, unless Globalstar and Apple invest in a new multi-billion-dollar satellite constellation.

Circling back to AST SpaceMobile and SpaceX, Farrar said, “It’s expensive to build a lot of satellites and make sure there’s always one overhead 24x7. That’s something AST is wrestling with. They’re going to have to raise a lot more money. SpaceX has access to a lot more capital.”