Starlink's website update is revealing a bit more about its plans for a satellite-delivered cell phone service. The new page for " Starlink Direct to Cell " promises "ubiquitous coverage" from "cellphone towers in space" that will work over bog-standard LTE. The current timeline claims there will be text service starting in 2024, voice and data in 2025, and "IoT" service in 2025.
Today satellite phone connectivity still requires giant, purpose-built hardware, like the old-school Iridium network phones. If you're only looking for emergency texting, you can also make do with Apple's introduction of the barely there connectivity paradigm, requiring being inside a connectivity window, holding up a phone, and following a signal-targeting app. Starlink wants to bring full-blown space connectivity to normal smartphone hardware.
The plan for Starlink Direct to Cell is different thanks to a lot of foundational improvements over what's currently available. First, those other two networks are in a higher orbit: the iPhone's Globalstar network is at 1,400 km above Earth, and Iridium is at 781 km. Starlink currently operates a lot closer to Earth, in the 550 km range. The other major shift is that SpaceX is developing the world's largest rocket, Starship, and having the world's largest rocket means you get to launch the world's biggest satellites. Bigger satellites can involve bigger, more sensitive antennas than what generally are launched into space, and this part of the operation isn't rocket science: Your tiny smartphone will have a much easier time connecting to the closer, bigger satellites, leading to a level of cellular space service that wasn't possible before.
Once the space network gets up and running, SpaceX says the service "works with existing LTE phones wherever you can see the sky. No changes to hardware, firmware, or special apps are required, providing seamless access to text, voice, and data." There will be hardware changes to Starlink satellites, though, with the latest versions sporting the necessary LTE equipment. The new site doesn't reiterate expectations for service speed, but when this project was announced in 2022, the claim was 2–4Mbps.
The page says Starlink satellites with the Direct to Cell capability will first be launched on the workhorse Falcon 9 rocket and eventually Starship. Starship's bigger payload represents a big capability upgrade for Starlink since the full-size "V2" satellites don't fit on the smaller Falcon 9, and today the company is getting by with "V2 Mini" variants due to Starship delays . The 2025 and 2026 service upgrades for Direct to Cell most likely depend on getting the big rocket up and running, so like all SpaceX projects, you should take these timelines with a grain of salt. This whole project was originally scheduled to start a "beta service" this year, but making that deadline now looks iffy .
When the new network eventually gets up and running, SpaceX has several traditional cell phone companies lined up to sell the service. The page lists SpaceX's partners as T-Mobile in the US, Rodgers in Canada, KDDI in Japan, Optus in Australia, One NZ in New Zealand, and Salt in Switzerland. The new promo page is seeking additional cellular partners.