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Image: Tina Tiller

InternetApril 6, 2023

The great cellphone tower in the sky

a string of satellites above the earth
Image: Tina Tiller

One NZ is making Starlink’s satellite services available on cellphones next year – good news for those living in mobile black spots, but not everybody is celebrating.

Earlier this week, One NZ (formerly Vodafone) announced a deal with Starlink that would allow service users total mobile coverage, with no black spots in the country. The service won’t be available until late next year, as most of Starlink’s current satellites don’t have the ability to connect to cellphones. The service will initially allow text messages to be sent via satellite, then voice messages and data as capacity increases.

Currently, Starlink is mainly used by people in rural areas not covered by fibre broadband. Users need a satellite dish and modem set-up which costs $1049, but has recently been on sale for $199 in rural areas and $799 in urban areas. In addition to the set-up cost, Starlink internet costs $159 per month. However, the One NZ announcement means that phones will be directly communicating with satellites, rather than through a focused and powered satellite disc. 

Ulrich Speidel, a senior lecturer in computer science at Auckland University, told The Spinoff that the announcement will make Starlink services much more widely available in New Zealand, beyond the several thousand people already paying for Starlink internet. That said, consumers needed to manage their expectations. “You’re not going to be able to stream Netflix while you’re tramping – it’s not going to be the same speeds you get in central Auckland,” he says. He explains that the technology will only work if you’re outside, as roofs and walls will be liable to block most of the satellite’s signal from five hundred kilometres away. 

elon musks spurious face on a star background filled with a big ol' satellite.
Musk speaks at the 2020 Satellite Conference and Exhibition in Washington. (Image: Win McNamee, Getty / Design: Tina Tiller.)

That said, there are some obvious use cases for satellite signals, highlighted in the recent floods caused by Cyclone Gabrielle, where Starlink units helped cut-off communities make contact. “The satellite and terrestrial networks are a good complement to each other,” says Speidel. “When the terrestrial network is down, the satellite is a back-up.” While the satellite network provided through One NZ will only have capacity for text messages initially, Speidel points out that when needed – a crash on a rural road, telling your partner when you’ll be home for dinner from the black spot of Transmission Gully – the service could be very useful. 

While the network will be available everywhere, people living in areas without coverage, or who travel to areas without coverage, stand to benefit the most. Speidel emphasises that a satellite network is not a replacement for standard cell phone towers. “The satellites are hundreds of kilometres away [while]  cell phone towers are usually just a few kilometres away,” he says. “The signal strength [from the satellite] will always be much weaker.” 

Starlink, part of Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, uses thousands of low-earth satellites, linked in constellations. Because these satellites are not “geostationary” – that is, orbiting above a permanent spot about the earth – they appear as strings of light moving through the sky at nighttime, rising and setting like the sun. Thousands of satellites are required for total coverage, because there needs to be a satellite roughly above you at all times. The satellite cellphone network will take time to implement, as not all of the satellites currently in orbit have the capacity to communicate with cellphones. 

The satellites are launched from SpaceX rockets, and last five to eight years, meaning the network has high maintenance costs as the satellites need to be regularly replaced. While speeds for terrestrial telecommunications can be improved by laying more undersea fibre-optic cables, improvements in satellite internet require more satellites – so those chains of Starlink constellations could become a more common sight. 

Cell network tower in a pixely gif radiating blue. looks both cool and a bit spooky!
Cellphone networks around the country went down thanks to Cyclone Gabrielle. (Image: Getty / Design: Tina Tiller)

Mobile coverage via satellite is already available in some regions, with the Rural Connectivity Group – a partnership between Crown Infrastructure Partners, One NZ, Spark and 2Degrees – reaching “black spot areas” by using towers connected to a geostationary satellite before linking into the main grid. The technology has been used to provide cell coverage in remote areas like the Chatham Islands and Fiordland. 

However, Speidel notes that the Starlink deal is different, as phones will be directly connecting to the satellites, rather than connecting through a tower. “A tower can talk to the satellite with much more power than your phone with its puny little battery.” This means that the coverage provided by Starlink to cellphones will be slow, so for now the RCG network is still essential for many areas not covered by cell service. When reached for comment by The Spinoff, a spokesperson for the Rural Connectivity Group said that the organisation was in the early stage of evaluating how the One NZ announcement might impact their services and agreement with the three network providers.

Rural internet providers have raised concerns about Starlink disrupting markets that they’ve invested heavily in. At the moment, Starlink pays licences to use the radio spectrum for each of its six ground units throughout New Zealand, for a total of about $10,000 a year. Meanwhile, Spark, One NZ and 2degrees paid $259m together for the 4G network, and are spending millions more on making 5G available in Aotearoa. Starlink has 250,000 customers and SpaceX makes hundreds of million dollars in revenue, and continues to grow, so the company is hardly hurting for cash (unless it’s all keeping Twitter afloat?).

big grey sky and a satellite dish and some farmland and weird little lakes on the chatham islands
The infrastructure that enables internet on the Chathams requires satellite discs (Photo: Celine Gregory-Hunt)

Starlink has not invested in New Zealand’s telecommunications infrastructure to the same degree, but is still profiting from doing business here – and while details of the One NZ deal have not been made clear it will certainly have been an expensive one for the New Zealand company. Mike Smith, who chairs the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, a group of small ISPs across the motu, told the Herald that this seems unfair. 

Another group with concerns about Starlink are astronomers, who’ve criticised the way the low-earth satellites can interfere with their research. Instead of gathering high-resolution images of deep space, their telescope images are marked with stripes of white from Starlink satellites.  

The worries of astronomers and other telecommunications companies are a reminder of how invisible things, like radio frequencies and the gravitational pull of earth which allows objects to orbit, can become the domain of private companies. For now, though, Starlink will keep launching satellites, hunks of metal and plastic rotating above us, soon to relay text messages. Keep watching space, Speidel says – Starlink is an early mover, but Musk isn’t the only billionaire hoping to profit from internet in the sky. 

Keep going!