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No phone signal? The ultimate fix could be coming

BY James O'Malley

13th Dec 2022 Technology

No phone signal? The ultimate fix could be coming

Pulling out your mobile and seeing that you have no phone signal is a universally frustrating experience. Can SpaceX and T-Mobile offer a solution?

If you’ve ever pulled out your phone in a rural area, you’ll know that it can be a frustrating experience. Will the website load? Will you be able to send that message? Or maybe it’s even worse: Do you have enough signal to call for help? 

Despite our phones being critical to our lives, not all phone signals are distributed evenly. According to Ofcom, network coverage of the UK landmass ranges from around 79 per cent to 86 per cent. This means that if you hike up a mountain, or take a wander through the wilderness, you might be really stuck if disaster strikes. 

"Will the website load? Or maybe it’s even worse: Do you have enough signal to call for help?"

And that’s why an announcement made by rocket company SpaceX and American phone network T-Mobile recently blew my mind a little. 

Satellite to cellular

Way back in January 2021, I wrote about how SpaceX is building StarLink, a new “mega-constellation” of broadband internet satellites. Since then, the company has continued to launch hundreds and hundreds of new satellites, and today for a mere £89 a month, it’s possible to receive speeds of between 90 and 200Mbps almost anywhere on Earth. That’s about as fast as a lower-end home broadband package—but with no ground-based phone masts or transmitters required. 

The problem with this system, though, is that to connect your phone or computer to it, you need a bulky satellite dish on top of your house—think something roughly similar in size to a Sky TV satellite dish. Which doesn’t make it very practical for taking on your hike

Satellite dish

SpaceX claims it has a solution to the need for satellite dishes

But now the company says it has come up with a solution. Working with T-Mobile, the company says that it plans to try and put what are effectively normal phone transmitters onboard StarLink satellites. 

If they can make it work, this will be a big deal. Because until now, any sort of communications with satellites has required additional hardware (like a massive dish) so that signals can be sent long distance, using special satellite communication frequencies. Instead, this proposed system will use the same cellular signals that phones ordinarily use. 

"If they can make it work, this will be a big deal"

This means that instead of needing to buy a new phone or a special gadget to make it work, or even needing to install a special app, it will just work as normal with the existing phone in your pocket. As far as your phone is concerned, the mobile signal receivers inside won’t know that the phone mast it is connecting to is orbiting above in space. It’ll connect to it in exactly the same way as if the transmitter was on top of a nearby hill. 

How will it work?

Behind the scenes, the tech to make it all work will be quite complex. In addition to needing to launch thousands of new satellites (not an easy thing to do!) the orbiting transmitters will also need to correct for the Doppler effect, which is the phenomenon where the frequency of waves changes over long distances—much like how an ambulance siren will sound different as it drives past you. 

And the transmitters on the satellites will have to be powerful enough to work over a much longer range, as StarLink satellites orbit around 340 miles above the Earth—significantly more than the 45 miles that the longest range ground-transmitters to work within. But Elon Musk has claimed that the company has already got the technology working “in the lab”. 

View of earth from space

StarLink satellites orbit around 340 miles above Earth

If/when the system does launch, it will take a number of years. My guess is around 3-5 years for the initial service. And the expectation is that at least at first, connections will be very limited. 

For example, you may only be limited to using certain approved messaging apps or making old-fashioned voice calls. And don’t expect to be posting videos to Instagram from the top of Ben Nevis just yet, as there won’t be enough bandwidth for more, at least at first. 

"Communications will become truly democratised, as rural communities could find themselves able to stay in touch more easily"

But if SpaceX and T-Mobile can make it work, the implications for the system could be world changing. Communications will become truly democratised, as rural communities in Britain or indeed the rest of the world could find themselves able to stay in touch more easily. And maybe one day aeroplane mode will no longer be a thing, as we’ll be able to stay connected throughout flights. 

If the system works, it could mean that we’ll never lose signal again. 

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