The cellular world was rocked yesterday by a story that SpaceX/Starlink and TMobile would deploy an ability for ordinary 5G handsets to do SMS/MMS and other low-speed operations with satellites, anywhere in the world. Later, Elon Musk stated this ability would also be possible in Tesla
Not a lot of detail here, but to add some context:
- The new functionality uses the 5G bands, so this will require a newer Tesla with a 5G radio. It is unknown if an upgrade of the radio will be available to existing cars.
- This will not begin until late 2023 and only with new Starlink Satellites launched on the yet-to-work Starship launch vehicle.
- Bandwidth is limited to about a megabit over a large region. For phones they are limiting to SMS/MMS though may do some low bandwidth functions in the future.
- As only new satellites will support it, connectivity will be intermittent for some time (which can be fine for text messages which can wait for a new satellite to fly overhead.)
- It is unknown but likely that drivers will need to subscribe to Tesla’s premium connectivity ($10/month) to make use of this for non-emergencies
How will you use it?
Clearly one useful feature for both phones and cars is emergency messages. If you are lost or break down in the middle of nowhere, you will be able to signal for help. In fact, one hopes this is possible for anybody with any 5G handset, not just a T-Mobile one. Indeed, in emergencies they might enable voice calls. The many stories of people lost in the wilderness out of cellular range will be a thing of the past.
Indeed, at present, it’s not clear what functions this will enable for ordinary use, beyond being able to send text messages. The current uses of cellular data in the car are mostly too high bandwidth to be regularly provided by satellite. These include music and video streaming, satellite visual maps, live traffic updates, software updates and web browsing. It is possible that better navigation could fit in this bandwidth, and also that traffic data, because it is broadcast to everybody in a region, could be supported. You will not be watching Netflix
Some low-bandwidth web browsing could be possible. Sadly, most web sites have taken advantage of the high bandwidth connections most people have and have become unusable on very low bandwidth connections, even though long ago they would have worked just fine.
That would change if Tesla equipped cars with some dedicated Starlink terminal, though not one with as large an antenna or power draw as the existing terminal. Starlink terminals use complex phased-array antenna techniques to “aim” their beam at a target satellite in order to get high data rates.
One interesting function of this would be to provide remote operations help for autonomous vehicles, which Tesla promises will come “very soon.” (Notoriously, they have said this for around 8 years.) Should they actually come, most companies expect the cars to still need rare help from humans, not to remotely drive them but to give strategic advice on what to do in confusing situations, particularly if in driver is aboard. One challenge with this is cars need to drive through cellular dead zones where they can’t get this remote assist that way. Teslas with a higher bandwidth connection could make use of Starlink to assure connection anywhere the car can see the sky. Indeed, even a low speed connection could allow a car to send a still photo of its situation and receive strategic advice. In some cases low frame rate video could also be felt as long as not too many cars need it in an area. The new satellites would need to be plentiful to do this — or the cars would need a terminal that can talk to the older satellites.
This is an interesting advantage because of course, the CEO of Tesla is good friends with the CEO of SpaceX. Other cars may not be able to get the same access to this functionality.
Starlink and Cellular
Starlink offers tremendous ability to improve connectivity for all in remote places. In particular, I would not be surprised to see Starlink offer a “Mini-Cell in a box” which consists of a Starlink terminal and cellular tower for a low price. This box could be put in any small town to offer 5G data in and around those small towns, or up on hills for longer range. Indeed, a box with solar and a battery panels could be dropped almost anywhere that it can reach enough people to be profitable. Many rural areas would even be happy with such a box if it turned off or went into a low power emergency only mode at night when the batteries were low. Such a box would not need the new Starlink satellites. For many people the ability to get small zones with voice and decent data in every small town could be more useful than text messages everywhere.