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Elon Musk’s Starlink in talks to boost EE rural coverage

starlink
Starlink has a network of nearly 6,000 satellites orbiting around 350 miles above the Earth - MARIANA SUAREZ/AFP via Getty Images

EE mobile customers in rural signal blackspots would be able to connect directly to Elon Musk’s satellite network Starlink under plans being explored to boost connectivity.

BT, EE’s owner, has signed a trial agreement with Starlink to use its network of low-Earth orbit satellites to carry calls, text and data to mobile masts.

This is expected to pave the way for a more advanced service that would see mobile signals beamed directly to smartphones.

This service would allow customers on the EE network to make calls and use mobile data in even the most remote locations.

However, sources warned discussions were at an early stage and it would be several years before the technology is ready to be rolled out.

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Mr Musk’s company has laid the groundwork for developing a satellite-powered mobile network in the UK after filing an application with regulator Ofcom to expand its network of ground terminals.

The move has sparked a race between rival mobile network operators, which are vying to secure an exclusive deal with Starlink.

Virgin Media O2 (VMO2) has already struck a similar deal with the company to boost its rural connectivity. This is focused on using satellite technology where fibre cables, which usually underpin mobile networks, are too difficult or costly to install.

It is understood that Liberty Global, which owns VMO2 alongside Telefonica, is also in discussions with Starlink over a Europe-wide deal for its customers.

Handsets including recent versions of the Apple iPhone are capable of connecting directly to satellites, although mobile operators have been wary of the potential competitive threat.

Mobile talks between Starlink and BT comes after The Telegraph revealed the pair were in talks about a satellite home broadband offering to deliver internet to remote areas.

Starlink has a network of nearly 6,000 satellites orbiting around 350 miles above the Earth, which beam down signals to satellite dishes for homes and businesses.

It has begun trialling direct-to-mobile technology with basic text message functions and this is expected to be expanded to data and calls.

Ministers and mobile operators hope the technology could play a crucial role in fixing so-called signal “not spots” in remote rural areas.

While direct-to-mobile services are not currently authorised in the UK, Ofcom is expected to launch a call for evidence on the technology in the coming months.

The issue has taken on greater urgency amid delays to a £1bn government project to upgrade rural mobile signals, dubbed the Shared Rural Network.

Mobile firms have warned they will miss an initial deadline at the end of next month, but ministers have ignored their pleas for an extension.

Starlink is one of a number of companies using satellite technology to improve telecoms services in the world’s most remote locations.

OneWeb, which is backed by the UK government, is trialling similar technology, while Vodafone has invested in satellite firm AST Space Mobile.