Starlink Direct to Cell

Dave Schafer
Feb 09, 2024
Icon Time To Read5 min read

At the end of 2023, Starlink announced a new initiative—Direct to Cell aims to expand cell networks and eliminate dead zones. In early 2024, the company launched and ran initial tests on six new satellites in its first major step to bring the service to the public.

This is exciting news, but what exactly is Starlink Direct to Cell, and when will it be available? We’ve rounded up answers to all your questions about the new service. Details are still pretty scarce, but we’ll update this page as new information becomes available. Let’s jump in!

What is Starlink Direct to Cell?

Starlink Direct to Cell is SpaceX’s planned cell service—sometimes called Starlink Mobile (not to be confused with Starlink Roam or Starlink Mobile service data). At the time of writing, Direct to Cell isn’t meant to be a standalone cellular service. It’s also not a traditional satellite phone service. Instead, it’ll be a supplementary service that works with existing networks and LTE-capable phones to expand coverage into areas that are hard to reach with existing cell towers, like national parks.

Starlink is partnering with mobile operators around the world: T-Mobile in the U.S., Optus in Australia, and Rogers in Canada. At the moment, T-Mobile is the only U.S. carrier currently on board, but we doubt it’ll stay that way.

The service is not publicly available. It’s still in the initial testing phases, but things appear to be coming together. Starlink plans to roll out to consumers in 2024, with staged rollouts for texting, voice and data, and Internet of Things (IoT) applications.

Finally, it’s important to note that this service will be based on 4G LTE, not 5G. That means speeds will be limited—5G is potentially faster than Starlink’s satellite internet, whereas 4G LTE is not. However, it also means it’ll work with nearly every modern phone, which we assume is a main driver for this decision.

What can you do with Starlink Direct to Cell?

The aim of Starlink Direct to Cell is to enable communication outside of standard mobile coverage areas. Long term, this means you will be able to use your phone like normal wherever you go.

Direct to Cell will be rolled out in stages. Initially, only texting will be available. This will include SMS, MMS, and “participating messaging apps,” according to T-Mobile. Users will be able to send and receive text messages “practically everywhere in the continental U.S., Hawaii, parts of Alaska, Puerto Rico, and territorial waters—even outside the signal of T-Mobile’s network.” 

In 2025, the service will add voice and data capabilities. There is a lot less available information about this stage of the plan, but the idea is that users won’t need to activate it—your phone will just work normally, recognizing Direct to Cell like a cell tower. But the performance might not be quite as good as LTE in areas covered by traditional cell towers. During the T-Mobile announcement, Elon Musk commented this service isn’t meant to be a substitute for traditional mobile phone service. It’s for basic coverage in the gaps that currently exist in cellular networks. Each satellite will have limited bandwidth to support all users in the area.

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When will Starlink Direct to Cell be available?

Starlink Direct to Cell is still in its early stages. The initial launch of the first Direct to Cell satellites and first successful test of the Direct to Cell technology both occurred in January 2024. The company used one of these initial satellites to send the service’s first text messages.

The current timeline for availability looks like this:

  • Texting: Starting later in 2024
  • Voice and data: Starting in 2025
  • Internet of Things connectivity: Starting in 2025

It could take longer for full capabilities to roll out—these are just the rough estimates for initial availability.

We’re not sure yet how many satellites Starlink will need in order to power the whole network, but we’re certain it’s more than six. The existing Starlink constellation is not fitted with the correct equipment to power this service, so new satellites will have to be launched.

We’ll keep this page updated as these timelines become more concrete and new info becomes available.

Will Starlink Direct to Cell work with all phones?

Effectively, yes. Starlink Direct to Cell will work with any cell phone that has LTE connectivity—no need to get a new cell phone or an expensive satellite phone. In 2024, that represents the vast majority of devices in use, at least in places like the U.S. LTE has been widespread in phones since about 2012, when the iPhone 5 was released. It’s also worth noting that all 5G phones also support 4G LTE as standard.

All that said, it looks like Starlink Direct to Cell will be available on a carrier-by-carrier basis. Only T-Mobile has signed on as a partner (so far) in the U.S. So while the service will likely work with most phones, it’ll have to use the T-Mobile network (or one of the supported international carriers). We’d imagine this will change eventually, but it’s too early to say.

Which cell providers will Direct to Cell work with?

As of January 2024, Starlink has announced partnerships with the following providers:

  • T-Mobile (U.S.)
  • Optus (Australia)
  • Rogers (Canada)
  • One NZ (New Zealand)
  • KDDI (Japan)
  • Salt (Switzerland)
  • Entel (Chile)
  • Entel (Peru)

We have a hard time believing this will be the full list. Given that there’s currently only one carrier per country, it’s possible that this first batch got some sort of exclusivity deal—kind of like how the iPhone was initially exclusive to AT&T.

Again, it’s really too early to say how this will play out. We expect more details will become available as we get closer to service launch, so stay tuned.

How much will Starlink Direct to Cell cost?

To our knowledge, there has been zero public discussion of prices or plan structures for Direct to Cell. That means anything we (or anybody else on the internet) says about this is pure conjecture.

Our guess is that Direct to Cell is likely to be an add-on option for plans with the carrier partners, purchased through the carrier itself, rather than Starlink. We would expect pricing to be somewhere between $10.00 and $25.00 per month—possibly more.

That isn’t cheap, but it’s also not outrageous for the types of users who may be interested in this service, such as serious backpackers, mountaineers, first responders, and others who spend a lot of time outside of cell range. From Elon Musk’s speech at the T-Mobile announcement, it seems these are the primary audiences.

Of course, this is all just guessing—we could be totally wrong. We’ll update this section as new information becomes available.

Starlink Direct to Cell FAQ

Can a phone connect directly to Starlink?

Phones can’t connect directly to the Starlink satellite internet service—you’d need to connect the phone to your Starlink Wi-Fi network. However, the upcoming Starlink Direct to Cell service will work with cell phones to provide LTE service outside your provider’s normal network range. This service isn’t available yet, and it won’t be a replacement for the Starlink current internet plans, but it will give users more options for staying connected.

Is there a mobile version of Starlink?

Starlink Direct to Cell will be a mobile, cellular service. This service is expected to launch in 2024 and will help your cell phone stay connected outside your carrier’s normal range.

Currently, there are two portable internet plans for Starlink satellite internet: Starlink Mobile (otherwise known as Starlink Roam) and Starlink Mobile Priority. Starlink Mobile lets you take your satellite dish with you, and you can get connected anywhere with a clear view of the sky. Mobile Priority is designed for in-motion use on cars, buses, boats, and other vehicles.

What phones will Starlink cell service work with?

Starlink Direct to Cell should work with any phone that can access 4G LTE networks. That means it should work with nearly every phone currently in use, at least in the U.S. Best of all, you won’t need to do anything special—it should just work.

Dave Schafer
Written by
Dave Schafer
Dave has written professionally for tech companies and consumer technology sites for nearly five years, with a special focus on TV and internet. He uses his industry expertise to help readers at get the most out of their services. No matter the project, he prefers his coffee black (the stronger, the better).