“Connecting the Unconnected – wherever you see the sky” – Starlink, KDDI and T-Mobile Discuss their Direct to Cell visions at MWC 


On day one of MWC this year, we sat in on a fireside chat with Jeff Giard, VP of Business Development Partnerships at T-Mobile, Jason Fritch, VP of Starlink Enterprise Sales, and Hiromichi Matsuda, Executive Officer and Director at Japanese telco KDDI, to discuss their vision to provide Direct to Cell services by the end of 2024

In August 2023, KDDI and SpaceX announced an agreement to provide satellite-to-cellular service leveraging SpaceX’s Starlink low earth orbit satellites and KDDI national wireless spectrum nationwide.  

The two companies, along with global cellular providers including T-Mobile, then announced that they would be be testing the direct to cell system using these satellites. 

Since KDDI began partnering with SpaceX, it has become the world’s first operator to use Starlink for cellular backhaul, became Starlink’s first reseller in Japan and became the first direct to cell partner in Asia. 

The main aim of the partnership, KDDI notes, is to being the urban connectivity experience to rural areas. During the Japanese Noto Peninsula earthquake in January this year, over 200 base stations were rendered unavailable, caused by damages to the fibre backhaul. After bringing in Starlink emergency kits, they were able to switch the load onto Starlink. Space X provided KDDI with the 350 complimentary, enabling emergency responders and communities to be quickly connected following the disaster. 

The partnership is the first direct to cell in Asia. In terms of use cases, it will begin with messaging this year, and then as the constellation becomes denser, voice and data services will be added. The end goal, says Giard, is for users to have a similar experience to what they do on the terrestrial network today, anywhere they are in the world. Despite over 99% of the Japanese population currently having coverage with their traditional cellular network, 40% of the country’s landmass is still without it. KDDI hope that the direct to cell solution can aid this. 

Emergency services are an incredible use case for Starlink, says Fritch. What’s important though, is working with governments in areas prone to natural disaster such as floods, fires and earthquakes so that they are ready for it, they aren’t just reacting to events as they happen. 

Other use cases include working with schools to provide connectivity to underserved areas, along with more traditional situations such as IoT (internet of things). 

The main goal of direct to cell, says Starlink is to eliminate global dead spots.  

What makes Starlink stand out, they say, is that there is no modification required for any of the direct to cell services, so they can be be used on regular handsets, which enables faster delployment (this is because the solution uses terrestrial spectrum, rather than the global satellite spectrum). Space X also has a huge amount of launches (over 100 last year), which enables a huge amount of connectivity. This, T mobile, say, is why they chose Starlink over competitors. 

Although “connecting the unconnected” sounds catchy, the solution relies on users having a fairly modern (and expensive) handset that is capable of satellite connectivity, which is an immediate barrier to entry for those who are not able to afford one. 

What’s next for the companies? Starlink aim to launch 50% more satellites this year on 2023 (around 150), and are ideally looking to have SMS activated as a global service within about six months, and first service activation at the end of the year (with T mobile). Excitingly, Starlink also have announced recent successes with WhatsApp. 

For T-Mobile says Giard, their ultimate vision is that it shouldn’t make any difference which network they are using, it should be seamless.  

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