Is Rogers Wavering on SpaceX’s Direct-to-Cell Service? (Updated)

Image credit: SpaceX, Rogers.

SpaceX’s Starlink is slowly getting closer to rolling out direct-to-smartphone satellite telephony in Canada and elsewhere, with several key milestones being hit in the last few months.

In Canada, their terrestrial partner for providing those capabilities will be Rogers, but questions still exist as to when and how these capabilities will be implemented, and why Rogers seems to be hedging their bets on whether to go with Starlink or their direct-to-mobile competitor Lynk.

Direct to Mobile

As detailed in previous SpaceQ coverage, direct-to-smartphone satellite communications is one of the key new innovations that is being hotly pursued by both smartphone manufacturers, telecommunications providers, and satellite companies. While dedicated “satellite phones” have existed for years, they were both expensive to use and sharply limited in their capabilities, often able to do little more than send emergency signals. 

The shift to satellite communications using low-earth-orbit satellite constellations has changed that situation. The lower latency and lower signal requirements—at least compared to communications with satellites in geosynchronous orbit—companies have begun exploring opportunities to use satellites to communicate with common smartphones. 

Apple’s deal with Globalstar in 2022 received enormous attention, as it promised basic emergency communications using existing iPhones. The technology was rolled out, and the capability now exists on recent iPhone models. That announcement triggered a flurry of announcements of other deals, most notably SpaceX’s deal to use Starlink to provide direct-to-cell service for T-Mobile. As Starlink is such a large and growing constellation, which is already relied on for high-speed, low-latency terrestrial Internet access, it has a key advantage on providing these capabilities compared to competitors like Lynk and AST Spacemobile.

In the announcement event, SpaceX owner Elon Musk and T-Mobile leader CEO Mike Sievert said that there would be both voice and (eventually) data transfer, but hedged somewhat on the timing. Musk said that it would only offer “text messages and possibly messaging apps” at first, and that anything more advanced would require “the most advanced phased array antennas in the world”. This will require Starlink’s larger and more capable V2 satellites, which in turn will require Starship to be fully operational before SpaceX can begin rolling them out, as they’re too large to be feasibly launched in a Falcon 9. 

That meant that startup competitor Lynk had one key advantage, even back in 2022: they’d already demonstrated the capability to do voice calling from space on a smartphone. At the time, Starlink was still only promising text messages.  They’ve retained that advantage, with Lynk boasting of how they are “the world’s only patented, proven, commercially licensed, and operational” satellite-to-mobile system.

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Here in Canada, Rogers is the company that made the key deals for satellite-based telephony, and it’s not hard to understand why. While Bell and Rogers provide roughly similar capabilities in built-up parts of Canada, Bell Mobility has a somewhat larger network outside of them in rural and remote Canada, a fact that Bell routinely trumpets in its advertising. 

By embracing satellite telephony, Rogers would leapfrog this disadvantage. Even if satellite communications were comparatively basic, it would mean that Rogers customers would now have service in the 70% of Canada that isn’t covered by either Rogers’ existing network or by Bell’s network. Even text messages are better than nothing at all.

Yet, as we mentioned last year, Rogers hedged its bets somewhat. Rogers signed a deal with SpaceX, much like T-Mobile’s deal. But Rogers also signed a deal with Lynk, whose satellite network is far smaller, but who had actually demonstrated the viability of their direct-to-satellite voice calling capabilities, something SpaceX hadn’t yet accomplished. 

In their release at the time, Rogers was expansive in their promises regarding these capabilities. Rogers said that they will “eventually eventually provide voice and data across the country’s most remote wilderness, national parks and rural highways that are unconnected today,” without mentioning the caveat that it would depend on Starship’s development and on SpaceX being able to launch their V2 satellites. 

In the year since that announcement, Rogers has been quiet about their deal with SpaceX. A request for answer to a Q&A was eventually denied by Rogers’ spokesperson, and no reason was given. This is especially surprising, as Rogers said in a recent release that “[t]he team sat down with SpaceX and Lynk Global to talk about advancing satellite-to-mobile phone coverage in Canada in 2024,” so one would expect that they’d have news to share on the SpaceX deal that comes from that meeting. 

They have made progress on the Lynk side. In December, Rogers trumpeted a “historic satellite-to-mobile phone call” between Rogers and Lynk. The call was made between Andrew Furey, Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, and a member of the Newfoundland and Labrador Search and Rescue Association. The release even quoted Charles Miller, co-founder and CEO of Lynk, saying that “our mission is aligned with Rogers’ deep commitment to ensure connectivity for all Canadians no matter where they live, work, and travel”, and that Lynk is “excited to be on this journey towards commercial service with Rogers.”  The release also reiterated how Lynk is the only “patented” and “proven” direct-to-mobile provider. 

For their part, Rogers said that the plan is still to roll out satellite-to-mobile in 2024, though any mention of SpaceX in the release is notably absent. Could they be pivoting to Lynk, at least in the short term? Is that why they rebuffed an interview on their relationship with SpaceX?

Regardless of their reasons or motivations, several events have taken place recently that may rekindle the spark between Rogers and SpaceX. 

First, and most famously, is SpaceX finally succeeding in achieving orbital velocity on their third Starship launch.  While neither the Super Heavy booster nor the Starship vehicle were able to achieve proper landing burns, they demonstrated the essential ability to get Starship into orbit. 

With that proven, SpaceX has demonstrated that it’s only a matter of time until they can start launching Starlink’s V2 satellites. As the satellites were the major bottleneck for SpaceX being able to establish their direct-to-mobile capabilities, this in turn means that SpaceX can now credibly promise that they will be able to fulfill their promises of voice and data satellite communications on smartphones. 

SpaceX has also launched its first six satellites that have direct-to-mobile capabilities. According to Reuters, T-Mobile said that SpaceX had launched a Falcon 9 in December that had “the first set of Starlink satellites that can beam phone signals from space.”  These were likely SpaceX “V2 mini” satellites: smaller versions of the V2 that have a fractional version of the V2 satellites’ new capabilities. Around the same time, Starlink began to market their “Direct-to-Cell” service, which is the same service that Rogers would be partnering with them on in Canada.

Finally, SpaceX announced in late February that it sent its first post on Musk’s social network “X” (formerly know as Twitter) through Starlink’s direct-to-cell satellites. According to Forbes, SpaceX engineer Ben Longmier confirmed that “it was the team’s first time posting on X through the satellites.” Longmier went on to post that there was actually some light tree cover, suggesting that trees would not necessarily prove to be an impossible barrier. 

Putting all that together, it looks like SpaceX is fighting to catch up with Lynk in terms of capabilities, and to make up for the lost time caused by the delays in Starship testing. While their capabilities might end up lagging behind Lynk’s for a time, the sheer size of their constellation (and of their launcher’s ability to grow it) may win out over time. 

Whether that will affect Rogers’ deals with SpaceX and Lynk is still up in the air, but it will be interesting to see what Canadians’ first real taste of direct-to-cell satellite telephony will look like when it rolls out later this year. 

Editors’ note: Subsequent to the publishing our story, and after initially responding in a positive manner to our interview query but then declining to respond to our questions, Rogers has since provided us the following statement.

“We’re focused on connecting Canadians when and where they want, and we’re excited to be working closely with global technology leaders to bring satellite-to-mobile phone coverage across the country. In 2023, we signed partnerships with SpaceX and Lynk Global to help connect every corner of the country and create new opportunities to serve Canadians.

Lynk and SpaceX bring two complementary approaches in introducing wireless connectivity to areas unserved by traditional cellular networks. They are each developing unique low-earth orbit technology to enable existing smartphones to work with satellite-to-phone technology to create coverage. They will use different spectrum frequencies and each has its own design for spacecraft and connectivity.” 

About Craig Bamford

Craig started writing for SpaceQ in 2017 as their space culture reporter, shifting to Canadian business and startup reporting in 2019. He is a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists, and has a Master's Degree in International Security from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He lives in Toronto.

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