T-Mobile US Inc. will use SpaceX Corp.’s Starlink satellite network to provide cellular coverage to customers, the companies announced on Thursday.

Starlink is a constellation of internet satellites deployed in low Earth orbit. It’s designed to provide connectivity in areas that are beyond the reach of traditional ground-based carrier networks. Over the past few years, SpaceX has deployed more than 3,000 Starlink satellites in orbit and plans to launch thousands more.

Thanks to SpaceX’s newly announced partnership with T-Mobile, customers of the carrier will gain the ability to connect their handsets to the Starlink network. T-Mobile expects to provide satellite access at no charge as part of its most popular cellular plans. According to the carrier, the “vast majority” of smartphones on its network will be compatible with Starlink.

T-Mobile plans to start rolling out the service next year. The carrier will initially provide the ability to send text messages through Starlink, with voice and data coverage set to be added further down the line. Eventually, T-Mobile and SpaceX expect that satellite connectivity will be available to the carrier’s customers “practically everywhere” in the continental U.S., Hawaii, parts of Alaska, Puerto Rico and territorial waters.

Connecting to the Starlink network currently requires users to purchase a specialized device known as a user terminal from SpaceX. T-Mobile customers, however, won’t have to purchase a user terminal. SpaceX plans to launch new, second-generation Starlink satellites in the coming months that will be capable of connecting to users’ handsets directly without requiring an external networking device.

The second-generation satellites can each provide 2 megabits to 4 megabits per second of bandwidth in a given area. They will connect to T-Mobile customers’ handsets via a part of the radio spectrum that is also used by the carrier’s ground-based cell towers, SpaceX detailed. SpaceX has reportedly sought regulatory approval to launch 30,000 second-generation satellites.

SpaceX’s partnership with T-Mobile will also require regulatory approval before the companies can start providing Starlink connectivity. In particular, SpaceX must secure permission from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to access the part of the radio spectrum used by T-Mobile’s ground-based network. The companies will reportedly have to obtain certain other FCC regulatory approvals as well.

SpaceX’s partnership with T-Mobile comes about a year after it teamed up with Google LLC’s cloud business to provide satellite-powered internet connectivity to enterprises. Earlier, the company inked a similar satellite partnership with Microsoft Corp. that likewise focuses on the enterprise market.

Image: SpaceX

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