Why is Starlink Quietly Launching Direct-to-Cell Satellites?

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Imagine being able to connect and communicate anywhere on Earth — even hundreds of miles away from any large cell tower. The concept is the holy grail of communication and one that Starlink is quietly building.

It is not an easy ask, though: using the same service to connect a smartphone — or any other device — instantly and reliably, no matter where the user is, is one of the most challenging feats of engineering there is and has eluded innovators throughout history.

However, a new technology, Direct-to-Cell, driven by startups and led by Starlink, is working to accomplish just that. If it works, and tests prove it can do, it will turn your smartphone into your own antenna and make traditional networks that rely on massive hardware infrastructure outdated.

More importantly, global connectivity in 100% of our planet would be secured.

Key Takeaways

  • Starlink is launching Direct-to-Cell (DtC) satellites to provide global connectivity, even in remote areas.
  • DtC can currently send text messages using existing phones, and Starlink plans to offer voice, data, and IoT by 2025.
  • Starlink’s unique model with SpaceX allows them to build the DtC network first, overcoming limitations in phone technology.
  • By launching DtC satellites now, Starlink positions itself as the leader in future global communication.

Starlink Launches 13 More New Direct-To-Cell Satellites

Direct-to-Cell (DtC) is a new and experimental concept that at the time still faces a long road ahead for it to become fully viable. However, this is not stopping Elon Musk‘s company hitting the ground running like no other company in the development of DtC.

On Tuesday, June 18 at 8:40 pm, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Space Force Station in California. The rocket carried 20 Starlink satellites. Thirteen of those satellites are equipped with DtC capabilities.


But these are not the first DtC Starlink satellites that reach Earth’s orbit. Just ten days before, on June 8, Starlink put another 20 satellites in orbit, 13 of those were are also DtC satellites.

Falcon 9 rocket launch.
Falcon 9 rocket launch. (SpaceX)

The question is, if DtC is not yet to play in the real world, why is Starlink launching these satellites? The answer? Starlink has a plan and keeps most of it close to its chest.

DtC Text Tech Tested and Operating: ‘Voice and Data in 2025’, Starlink Says

On January 8, Starlink announced that they had successfully sent and received the first text messages using one of their first DtC satellites. The news, which may have been too technical to get massive coverage, is a major accomplishment in the path towards global connectivity.

These first messages were sent using the T-Mobile network spectrum but today, Starlink says its DtC today provides access to T-Mobile, Optus, Rogers, One NZ, KDDI, Salt, and Entel, which as providers are spread throughout the globe.

Miles Ward, CTO of SADA, a company exploring partnerships in DtC to provide edge computing services in the field spoke to Techopedia about DtC and Starlink’s strategy.

“Today, the most popular example of direct-to-cell satellite technology is the iPhone’s SOS mode. That’s simple SMS-style text only today.”

Ward said that as DtC tech improves, differences in user experience between the terrestrial and satellite connectivity will shrink.

Starlink says that by 2025 its DtC satellites will send voice and data and connect IoT devices anywhere in the world, including dead zones (areas without coverage).

Turning Your Phone into A Powerful Antenna

The biggest roadblock the industry has faced when developing DtC, has always been developing smartphones (with special hardware and software) capable of ‘acting as an antenna’. Ward from SADA broke it down for us.

“This is a chicken-egg problem: no cell manufacturers are going to make phones that support advanced Direct-to-Cell tech until the network is there. So, it’s in Starlink’s best interest to make a network available so that phone manufacturers have something to design and develop against.”

However, Starlink has found a way around the problem. Its DtC tech works on any cell phone without needing new hardware, upgrades, or any special app. The technology uses standard LTE/4G protocols.

It is unclear whether Starlink DtC can handle 5G, but scaling to 5G and even 6G could be possible, thanks to hardware virtualization and Starlink’s model and resources.

Starlink DtC graphic from Starlink DtC Business. The graph shows how any cell phone can be used to connect using DtC.
Starlink DtC graphic from Starlink DtC Business. The graph shows how any cell phone can be used to connect using DtC.

“Starlink’s LEO design means they absolutely intend to replace satellites regularly,” Ward said. “The cost profile for launching new satellites (because of SpaceX) is so low that they’re designed to have a relatively short lifespan. If new hardware is required to unlock new capabilities, they are in a unique position to enable that.”

These satellites can handle satellite handoffs, Doppler shift, and timing delays — as Starlink puts it:

“Terrestrial network cell towers are stationary, but in a satellite network they move at tens of thousands of miles per hour relative to users on Earth.”

SpaceX is expected to launch a constellation of DtC capable satellites, though it is unknown how many of these Starlink satellites would need to orbit the Earth to provide global coverage.

Starlink’s DtC hardware already in orbit may have been designed to scale virtually to voice, data, and Internet of Things.

This means that hardware technology updates may not be significant, and virtual software enhancements could help the company provide full communications services, including video, data, and IoT automation and operation.

Starlink DtC capable satellite. Image: Starlink DtC Business.
Starlink DtC capable satellite. Image: Starlink DtC Business.

Starlink Establishes The DtC Beachhead

By early 2024 Starlink had deployed over 5,000 satellites, an incredible number considering launches began only a couple years ago. Starlink also leverages all its existing networking, ground stations, and Points of Presence (PoPs) to support DtC. DtC data travels over Starlink’s core directly to the operator’s core, providing a seamless integration

The company serves more than 2.3 million customers across the world, but having a monopoly on DtC tech could elevate the brand to a whole new level, becoming a service of significant value for billions of people around the world.

Ward from Sada said that the first generations of systems will teach us enormously about the next generations.

“By deploying these satellites now, Starlink is setting itself up to be much more useful in the future as the need for a global telecommunications provider becomes more apparent.”

David Nicholson, Chief Research Officer at The Futurum Group, a family of companies with leading tech analysts offering insights and market research to C-Suite executives, told Techopedia that DtC is in its “early days.”

“I believe they (Starlink) are establishing a beachhead. There was a time when the idea of not having a landline at home was inconceivable. It seems inevitable that low earth orbit satellites will eventually deliver coverage everywhere.”

The Bottom Line

Starlink’s aggressive launch of Direct-to-Cell (DtC) satellites is a strategic move to establish itself as the leader in future global connectivity. While the technology is still in its early stages, Starlink has overcome a major hurdle by providing text messaging with existing smartphones.

The company’s unique position — its constellation of satellites, existing network infrastructure, and low launch costs through SpaceX — allows Starlink to bypass the problems that plague DtC development.

Starlink’s DtC service has the potential to seamlessly integrate voice, data, and even IoT capabilities. This could revolutionize connectivity, providing ubiquitous access to billions.


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Ray Fernandez
Senior Technology Journalist
Ray Fernandez
Senior Technology Journalist

Ray is an independent journalist with 15 years of experience, focusing on the intersection of technology with various aspects of life and society. He joined Techopedia in 2023 after publishing in numerous media, including Microsoft, TechRepublic, Moonlock, Hackermoon, VentureBeat, Entrepreneur, and ServerWatch. He holds a degree in Journalism from Oxford Distance Learning, and two specializations from FUNIBER in Environmental Science and Oceanography. When Ray is not working, you can find him making music, playing sports, and traveling with his wife and three kids.