For the generation of Yukoners who grew up watching Star Trek on a one-week tape delay on WHTV, there was news last week that bordered on science fiction: you may soon be able to use your cellphone from the middle of Kluane Park as easily as Spock could call up Captain Kirk on his Communicator from the surface of some unexplored planet.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX and American cellphone behemoth T-Mobile announced plans to use SpaceX’s satellite network to offer service on your cellphone anywhere in Alaska, Hawaii or the Lower 48. Yes, that’s right. You won’t need a dish or a special device. The Wall Street Journal reported the service could be operational for some users as soon as late 2023.
SpaceX is already in the process of using Version 1 of its network of almost 3000 small satellites to lap the Yukon government’s Dempster fibre line, with plans next year to offer broadband (using a small dish) to the entire Yukon.
Now they are planning to trump that with service to handheld devices, albeit more around voice and texting rather than downloading entire seasons of Game of Thrones.
Technically, the plans are astounding. Version 2 of the SpaceX network will involve larger satellites with larger antennae. According to Ars Technica, a deep tech magazine, the new satellites will be about seven metres long and will have an antenna that folds out about five metres. With these antennae circling the planet, your cellphone’s weak signal will be able to connect from anywhere in the Yukon.
SpaceX supremo Elon Musk described the difficulties to Ars Technica. The antennae “have to pick up a very quiet signal from your cellphone. Just imagine, that signal has to travel 500 miles, then be caught by a satellite that’s traveling at 17,000 [miles per hour].” This speed, as you may recall from Physics class at F.H. Collins, requires the technology to compensate for the Doppler effect.
The plan is for your cellphone to always look first for terrestrial towers, but to scan space if none are available. This will be great for remote areas, or for downtown Whitehorse when we have one of our periodic cellphone outages.
Another technical challenge is that the new, larger satellites do not fit in SpaceX’s current rockets, and will have to wait for next year’s new model.
Almost as astounding are T-Mobile’s plans for pricing the service: free for users of many of its mobile plans. The InReach device we use for satellite texting today, which uses a much older network of satellites, cost several hundred dollars to buy and $40 per month. There is no voice service, and text messages are limited to 160 characters.
SpaceX and T-Mobile said they plan to offer partnership deals to cellphone companies in other countries, presumably also the Canadian ones who run networks in the Yukon. It’s unclear how long this will take to happen.
Meanwhile, two other companies – Lynk and AST Space Mobile – are also working on direct-to-cellphone satellite services. The industry is also abuzz with rumours that Apple will announce its next phone, the iPhone14, will be capable of satellite texting via Globalstar’s network of older satellites.
These satellite services will have huge benefits for Yukoners.
People in trouble will be able to call for help from anywhere, whether that’s on an expedition to Mount Logan or on the curve on the Atlin Road where my transmission expired a couple of years ago. This includes rescue calls as well as getting medical advice after a remote accident.
We can also expect fewer people to get into trouble in the first place if they have access to digital maps, positioning and weather data.
Cheap and ubiquitous satellite connectivity will also be a productivity boon for Yukon businesses with remote camps or remote workers. Think of how many productive person-hours have been lost sitting in tents in bad weather, or waiting for the plane at the wrong lake after a scheduling mix up. Field workers will be able to access technical documents, help lines and connect their devices to remote diagnostic platforms.
The satellite networks will also serve as backups for natural disasters that destroy or overwhelm terrestrial communications networks (unless that natural disaster is a solar storm that also knocks out satellites, of course).
The announcement did not go into detail about devices. But if your cellphone can connect to a SpaceX satellite, then there should be major opportunities to make other satellite gadgets smaller and cheaper. Think of the satellite collars biologists put on caribou, sensor drones or remote instruments such as weather or water stations.
Of course, no new technology comes without some downsides. We’ll all lose the old escape hatch of claiming bad coverage to dodge a tedious phone call. You’ll have to actually be in an underground mine to get a respite from text messages and the impossibly perfect lives of your Instagram friends.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.