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August 3, 2022
New M2 MacBooks signal Apple is moving full-steam ahead with its computers

June 9, 2022
New M2 MacBooks signal Apple is moving full-steam ahead with its computers

May 13, 2022
So long, passwords? Portable digital identities may replace them

April 25, 2022
Can smart cameras make return to office efforts less awkward?

March 27, 2022
5G service is coming to more cars. What can drivers expect – and when?

March 9, 2022
New iPhone SE and iPad Air have different 5G support, but will owners even notice?

February 28, 2022
Syncing Alexa, Google Nest and Apple smart home tech is about to get easier with Matter

January 31, 2022
New home broadband internet options extend reach, give consumers more choices

January 6, 2022
Personal computers aren't dead yet: Laptops are showing new signs of life at CES

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USAToday Column

August 30, 2022
SpaceX, T-Mobile race to put an end to cell phone dead zones with help from outer space

By Bob O'Donnell

Given how common smartphones and cellular networks are now, it’s easy to forget how magical it really is that we can make phone calls, send messages and even get access to information from nearly anywhere on Earth.

As great as our existing wireless networks may be, though, we’ve all been in places where coverage just doesn’t exist – a dreaded “dead zone.”

Of course, some would argue that’s a good thing. But for people who live in rural areas, or for when we are in remote areas and would like the peace of mind of knowing that we can communicate if we need to, true everywhere coverage is a worthy goal.

Eliminating network dead zones requires access to a technology that can send signals to any point on the planet. Right now, that’s possible only with connections to space-based satellites.

And, indeed, there are satellite phones currently available that can do that, but they are very expensive, proprietary devices that require costly data plans to work. What we really need is a way for our existing smartphones to make a satellite connection.

That’s exactly what T-Mobile and satellite company SpaceX announced last week that they’re planning to enable by the end of 2023.

Their goal is to bring a satellite-powered service called Coverage Above and Beyond, that will work with most existing smartphones and will eliminate all dead zones across the continental U.S., Hawaii, parts of Alaska and even many surrounding bodies of water.

Best of all, according to T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert, the service will be a free add-on to T-Mobile customers who currently subscribe to its most common wireless plans (other customers with lesser plans will likely have to pay a small monthly fee if they want to use it). To help drive global satellite coverage, T-Mobile has also pressed other worldwide carriers to join in via new reciprocal roaming agreements.

It turns out T-Mobile and SpaceX are not the only companies working on satellite communications for phones, however.

Apple, for example, is rumored to be bringing a technically different but conceptually similar basic satellite connection to its upcoming iPhones through a partnership with satellite company GlobalStar.

Verizon also announced a partnership with Amazon’s Kuiper satellites last year, but little progress appears to have been made thus far.

In addition, two smaller companies, AST SpaceMobile and Lynk Global, have been discussing a similar technology for several years. In fact, AST SpaceMobile’s first satellite is expected to be launched later this year (ironically, the launch is being handled by SpaceX).

Initially, all these satellite-based services are expected to offer only basic text messaging and voice service – you won’t be streaming Netflix shows from the top of a remote mountain anytime soon – but for basic communications and safety purposes, it’s a huge step forward.

The T-Mobile, SpaceX partnership will leverage some existing frequencies that T-Mobile uses as part of its current cellular network – specifically, the 1900 MHz range that’s part of its existing 4G network – and will use a forthcoming constellation of several thousand low earth orbit, or LEO, SpaceX satellites called Starlink as a series of (very) remote cell towers.

These are next-generation versions of the satellites now powering the SpaceX Starlink wireless broadband service the company unveiled this year. See “New home broadband internet options extend reach, give consumers more choices” for more.

Each of these new satellites will have a large 25-square-meter dish with sophisticated antennae that will be “listening” for and sending signals as they circle the Earth. To complete the connection, each of the satellites will link back to T-Mobile’s existing network.

The way it will work is that your phone will search for existing cell towers as it normally does, and if it can’t find any, instead of saying No Network, it will switch over to this new satellite-powered network.

By operating this way, it doesn’t require the specialized antennas and other equipment found in dedicated satellite phones to receive a signal. As a result, most modern vintage smartphones (roughly three to four years old or less) will simply think they’re connecting to an existing cellular network.

As mentioned, however, the speeds and capacity of the satellite-enable connections will be very limited, with expected throughput for one virtual tower being only 2 to 4 Mbps, which is significantly slower than traditional cellular connections.

Also, it’s not entirely clear how much of a power drain connecting to the low power signals from the satellite will cause and how it will impact your phone’s battery life. In addition, messaging apps and mobile OS’s like Android and iOS will need to make a few adjustments to function properly in these limited bandwidth environments.

Still, it’s an incredibly impressive feat of technology and could literally be a lifesaver in emergencies.

Satellite communications is clearly the next big step for modern wireless networks and devices, and with these latest developments from T-Mobile, SpaceX and others, it’s clear that the technology will be going mainstream very soon.

While some may regret losing the ability to completely get off the grid once these capabilities come online, the comfort of knowing that you’ll more reliably be able to connect with someone is bound to be reassuring.

Plus, the pure magic of being able to carry around a device that reaches out to the stars to communicate can’t help but make you appreciate the incredible advances of modern science and technology.

Here’s a link to the original column:

USA TODAY columnist Bob O'Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Microsoft, HP, Dell, and Intel. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.