FCC plans to boost satellite connections to smartphones

The Federal Communications Commission plans to set up a new regulatory framework for facilitate hookups between satellite operators and wireless companies, with the objective of connecting smartphone users in remote or underserved areas of the world.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, adopted today, follows up on a string of demonstrations and announcements related to satellite-cellular combinations.

A Virginia-based company called Lynk Global has already shown that its satellite-to-smartphone system works, with the FCC’s blessing. Another satellite venture called AST Spacemobile is setting up partnerships with telecom providers around the world. The heavyweights of the telecom industry are in on the idea as well.


Satellites plus cellphones add up to a new frontier

Today’s big iPhone reveal adds Apple to the list of companies aiming to combine the power of satellite communications with the power of everyday cellphones — a list that includes other tech heavyweights such as T-Mobile and SpaceX, Amazon and Verizon, OneWeb and AT&T. Also on the list: a startup that’s carving out a niche on the satellite-cellular frontier.

“We’re years ahead of anybody else, and so we’re in a great position,” said Charles Miller, co-founder and CEO of Virginia-based Lynk. “We’ve been talking for a while about what a huge business this is, and a bunch of other companies are now starting to wake up.”

Specialized satellite phones have been around for decades, but the new crop of space-based telecom services is meant to make use of the billions of smartphones that are produced for the general market.


SpaceX will build new satellites to boost T-Mobile’s signal

T-Mobile subscribers will be getting a satellite upgrade to their wireless service, thanks to a newly announced partnership that takes advantage of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation.

But don’t expect to start streaming high-definition videos via satellite to your T-Mobile connected devices immediately: The beta version of Starlink’s broadband boost is due to roll out in select areas by the end of next year, after a series of SpaceX satellite launches.

That rollout will begin with text messaging, including SMS, MMS and messaging apps. Voice and data coverage will come later.

T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk laid out the details behind the deal today during a live presentation at SpaceX’s Starbase facility in South Texas.

Sievert said the partnership calls for creating a new network, composed of Starlink satellites that can use T-Mobile’s mid-band spectrum nationwide. He said the vast majority of smartphones already on its network would be compatible with the new satellite-plus-cellular service.

“You can connect with your existing phone,” Sievert promised. He said he expected to include the Starlink-enabled service free with T-Mobile’s most popular plans. With less popular plans, a monthly fee might be charged, he said.


T-Mobile and SpaceX strike Starlink connectivity deal

The CEOs of SpaceX and T-Mobile will join forces to reveal how their companies will work together to increase wireless connectivity.

Details about the announcement, set to be live-streamed at 7 p.m. CT (5 p.m. PT) Aug. 25 from SpaceX’s Starbase facility in South Texas, haven’t been made public. But the plan seems likely to involve using SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation and T-Mobile’s cellular network to boost subscribers’ access and both companies’ fortunes.

“This is something special,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in a tweet.

Mike Sievert, the CEO of Bellevue, Wash.-based T-Mobile, will join Musk for the presentation on YouTube.


Pivotal Commware’s 5G ambitions get a $50M boost

Kirkland, Wash.-based Pivotal Commware says it has closed on a $50 million funding round that will help it expand research, development and distribution for its millimeter-wave 5G network infrastructure products.

Tracker Capital Management, a venture capital investment firm that’s headquartered in New York, led the Series C investment round. Other participants in the financing include Devonshire Investors and Pivotal’s existing investors — including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

Gates has been investing in Pivotal since 2017, not long after it was spun out from Intellectual Ventures. It’s one of several Gates-backed ventures that make use of metamaterials, an exotic breed of electronics that can channel signals without moving parts.

Pivotal calls its metamaterials-based technology “holographic beam forming.” The technology is used primarily to support ultra-wideband 5G communications.


SpaceX seeks 30,000 spots for Starlink satellites

Starlink satellites
A stack of 60 Starlink satellites is in position for orbital deployment during a SpaceX Falcon 9 mission in May. (SpaceX Photo)

SpaceX has filed paperwork with the International Telecommunication Union to add up to 30,000 Starlink broadband data satellites to the 12,000 it’s already been cleared to put in orbit.

The filings reflect SpaceX’s bullishness on the prospects for expanding high-speed internet access to the billions of people around the world who are currently underserved — and its determination to stay ahead of competitors who have their own plans to launch thousands more broadband satellites.

SpaceX’s requests came to light in the form of 20 coordination requests passed along to the ITU on Oct. 7 by the Federal Communications Commission, with 1,525 orbital planes specified in each request. Such requests generally come in the early stages of the regulatory process, with follow-up action taken by the ITU and the FCC.

The filings set off a seven-year countdown for getting clearances and launching the specified satellites, and then operating them for at least 90 days. SpaceX wouldn’t be required to launch all 30,000 satellites, but laying out its plan now could give it a regulatory advantage if other satellite operators were to go after the same orbital slots and frequencies.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


Seattle will challenge FCC ‘overreach’ on 5G

Small cell antenna
Deploying 5G cellular service will require the installation of many more small-cell antennas in neighborhoods. (Verizon Photo)

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes say they intend to appeal an order from the Federal Communications Commission that mandates how much municipalities can charge for letting telecom carriers mount 5G cellular equipment on city-owned infrastructure.

The FCC’s commissioners voted to issue the order on Sept. 26, but it hasn’t gone into effect yet. When it does, it could slash Seattle’s utility-pole fees to a fraction of what they are now. The order also sets up “shot clocks” for city governments to rule on applications for 5G equipment installations.

The move is expected to reduce the costs of cellular service companies such as Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile by as much as $2 billion a year. But in a statement issued today, Durkan and Holmes characterized the order as a power grab.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


Cellphone carriers gear up for eclipse jam

Smartphone eclipse observing
If you use your smartphone to photograph a partial solar eclipse, you should cover the camera lens with a solar filter – even if it’s a makeshift one. (NASA Photo / Sten Odenwald / Lou Mayo)

One month from today, Americans could well be in on the most photographed, most widely shared total solar eclipse in history – but it’s up to telecom providers to make sure it doesn’t turn into a total bust.

From Oregon to South Carolina, millions of eclipse-chasers will be in what’s likely to be unfamiliar territory, outside the usual hot spots for cell service, scrambling to put photos online or stream live video.

Cellphone carriers will be using their tools of the trade – including mobile communication towers, portable power generators and beefed-up backhaul connections – to keep up with the flood of data and phone calls.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


AT&T focuses on down-to-earth drone strategy

Image: Drone at cell tower
A drone hovers near an AT&T cellular tower for an inspection. (Credit: AT&T)

When you think of the up-and-coming players in the commercial drone market, you might think of Amazon, or Google … but how about AT&T?

“AT&T is going to be one of the biggest users of drones in the United States,” Art Pregler, who heads AT&T’s drone program and serves as director of national mobility systems, told GeekWire in an interview.

That may sound like a bold statement – but Pregler is just reinforcing what John Donovan, AT&T’s chief strategy officer and president of technology and operations, said last month at the company’s Shape conference in San Francisco.

Long before Amazon gets its drone delivery fleet in operation in the United States, AT&T will be deploying fleets of robo-fliers across the nation, thanks to regulatory changes that took effect this week.

Because of those changes, AT&T is now able to use unmanned aircraft systems to inspect cellular towers and check cellphone reception in urban areas – including the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium, where the procedure is being demonstrated this week.

Get the full story on GeekWire.