Elon Musk has launched six satellites that will allow satellite texts and calls straight from regular smartphones, and Australia’s Optus is one of the beneficiaries.
Overnight Musk’s SpaceX launched 21 Starlink low earth orbit (LEO) satellites including six with Direct to Cell capabilities that let regular phone users make use of satellite texting and calling in remoter areas.
Australian users will initially be able to send texts and eventually make audio and video calls from the remotest parts of the country where there is no ground-based coverage. Messages and calls received by Starlink satellites will be beamed to ground stations and relayed to other users via ground networks.
The service will take regular smartphone to satellite coverage beyond the rudimentary emergency SOS service made available by Apple on recent model iPhones.
Starlink has timetabled texting from regular smartphones to begin this year, with voice and data capabilities due in 2025. Integration of the service with Internet of Things devices will also come in 2025.
Optus and Telstra have already signed deals with Starlink to access the new service but only Optus was included in today’s announcement of the satellite launches. They bring the service a step closer.
The integration of regular ground-based telco networks with LEO satellites has been a hot communications issue. Taiwanese chip maker MediaTek has been producing the chips needed in regular smartphones to allow texting and calling via satellite services.
MediaTek last year demonstrated second generation chips that enable good quality video calls from regular smartphone direct to satellite.
“SpaceX is leveraging its experience in manufacturing and launching the world’s most advanced rockets and spacecraft to deploy Starlink satellites with the Direct to Cell capability at scale,” Starlink says on its website.
“Direct to Cell satellites will initially be launched on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and then Starship. On orbit, the satellites will immediately connect over laser backhaul to the Starlink constellation to provide global connectivity.”
UK rugged phone maker Bullitt and Motorola last year announced interest in providing similar services in the Australian market, but neither have introduced them so far.
Optus says texting will be available from its service in late 2024 with voice and data from late 2025.
“We anticipate the service will work with most existing 4G VoLTE capable mobile handsets with 5G capability for the service planned to follow in the future,” a spokesperson said. “An upgrade should not be necessary for most Optus customers without a need for customers to buy additional equipment.
“Optus will be testing a variety of handsets closer to service launch and will confirm service expectations for popular handsets at that time. Product details and costs will be available closer to service availability.”
Telstra has been approached for comment.