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T-Mobile partners with SpaceX in effort to end cellphone dead zones

T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert on Aug. 25 announced a partnership with SpaceX to use Starlink satellites to expand the carrier’s coverage. (Video: SpaceX)

T-Mobile will use SpaceX satellites to expand the carrier’s coverage to remote parts of the United States, the companies said Thursday.

The partnership will allow T-Mobile, the second-largest wireless carrier in the United States, to tap into the constellation of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites to provide service to customers in areas with no cell towers. T-Mobile, based in Bellevue, Wash., said more than 500,000 square miles of the United States does not have cell coverage.

“This partnership is the end of mobile dead zones,” T-Mobile chief executive Mike Sievert said at a Thursday news conference with SpaceX founder Elon Musk. “This is important for safety, it is important for contact with the people we love, and it is important for people in rural areas.”

T-Mobile will begin using Starlink satellites to test messaging services in remote areas by the end of next year, before expanding to data and voice coverage, Sievert said. He expects the service to be included in T-Mobile’s most popular plans at no extra cost.

Musk said the satellite service was meant to supplement existing networks, not replace them. SpaceX is also looking to partner with other carriers around the globe to make the service available outside the United States, he said. In March, SpaceX provided Ukraine with access to its Starlink satellites to prevent mass internet outages following Russia’s invasion.

“We’ve all read about someone who was hiking, got lost or died of thirst or exposure,” Musk said. “You could conceivably be stuck on a desert island and be talking to a basketball and now you can call for help.”

SpaceX founder Elon Musk said Aug. 25 the new cellular service with T-Mobile will use Starlink satellites and will work with phones currently on the market. (Video: SpaceX)

Cellphones operating on T-Mobile will be able to access SpaceX’s next-generation Starlink V2 satellites, set to launch next year. The satellites will be outfitted with massive antennas and will be able to fully emulate a cell tower. If there is no local coverage available, phones will automatically connect to the satellites traveling overhead at 17,000 miles per hour.

The satellites will offer 2 to 4 megabits per second of bandwidth, to be shared between customers in a cell zone, Musk said, or the equivalent of up to 2,000 voice calls and hundreds of thousands of text messages. The service will also keep users connected in the event of a mass cell tower outage.

Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission rejected SpaceX’s bid for nearly $1 billion in subsidies to provide satellite internet to rural customers. The commission said it worried that SpaceX’s $600 satellite dishes would be too expensive for some customers, and that the company “failed to demonstrate that the providers could deliver the promised service.”

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The FCC did not immediately return a request for comment late Thursday on the planned collaboration.

The partnership between SpaceX and T-Mobile also looks to allow rural customers to access internet service with the hardware already in their pockets.

“It solves real coverage problems in areas that cannot be served terrestrially and will save lives when people need help and rescue,” said Avi Greengart, lead analyst at Techsponential, a research firm. “It will keep people living away from the grid affordably connected and provides a level of redundancy when the network on the ground goes down.”

Chris Velazco in San Francisco contributed to this report.