Starlink achieves satellite-to-phone connection with Galaxy S21 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra AH 11

SpaceX’s satellite internet division, Starlink, has made a major breakthrough in its efforts to provide phone service directly from satellites. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced that the company has achieved peak download speeds of 17Mbps for satellite-to-phone connectivity using an “unmodified Samsung phone”.

This test represents the fastest speeds yet for direct satellite connectivity on a standard smartphone without any special hardware. Elon Musk revealed the results on X, sharing a screenshot of the speed test performed on the Galaxy phone. Tracking the phone’s serial number revealed that it was a 128GB Verizon model of Samsung’s 2021 flagship, the S21 Ultra (128GB).

This demonstrates Starlink’s ability to leverage existing commercial satellites and unmodified consumer devices for new satellite communications services. The space company has been working with T-Mobile in recent months to develop this capability. If realized at scale, it could provide basic calling and messaging in remote areas without cellular.

Galaxy S21 Ultra reaches 17 Mbps satellite communication with Starlink

While 17 Mbps is sufficient for voice calls using existing protocols, video calls may struggle at these speeds. Data-heavy applications also won’t be practical. However, even a slow satellite connection could be a life-saving backup for emergencies offshore or in truly isolated locations.

On the other hand, Samsung and other OEMs like Google are promising direct satellite connections in their future devices. A screenshot from last week shows what appears to be the settings page of a Galaxy device running One UI 6.1, which will debut with the Galaxy S24 series. The page lists the features that can be helpful in an emergency. This would eliminate the need for carrier partnerships and allow for independent, satellite-only connectivity.

However, it appears that speeds would need to increase significantly for standard smartphone use cases beyond basic calls. Starlink and its competitors will look to increase performance through larger satellites, higher throughput satellites, and multi-access technologies.