Optus joins the space race to improve rural Australia’s mobile coverage

Couple using phone next to tent whilst camping in mountains
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Optus has announced a partnership with Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite-based communications system, with the intention to “cover 100% of Australia” with mobile connectivity. 

The announcement comes just a week after Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications provider, also announced a partnership with the SpaceX-owned Starlink. However, Telstra’s partnership has the aim to improve satellite-based internet services for rural homes and businesses — think of it as a competitor to the NBN’s Sky Muster satellite service. 

Optus’ deal relates to mobile coverage, specifically, and will work to eradicate any and all black spots nationwide. An official Optus statement says this means “[expanding] the reach of customers’ mobile connectivity to include the 60% of Australia’s land mass that currently has no mobile coverage.”

The only areas where Optus won’t expand Starlink-based mobile coverage is to the Australian Radio Quiet Zone in Western Australia and remote offshore territories and islands. 

We’re still a way off Optus’ plans coming to fruition, with the telco claiming the first phase of the rollout — starting with support for sending SMS — will begin in late 2024. Voice and data services will follow in “late 2025”.

Optus has said further information relating to pricing and how the rollout will work, will be announced closer to the service’s launch date. For now, Matt Williams, Managing Director of Marketing and Revenue at Optus has said, “Our work with SpaceX aims to bring the coverage capabilities of satellites direct to compatible mobile handsets without the need for customers to buy additional equipment.”

...but some equipment may be required

What Optus hasn’t revealed just yet is whether your phone will need to support satellite-based communications or not, our initial assumption is that it will need to. So, while you won’t need “any additional equipment”, you may need to get yourself a new phone. We have reached out to Optus for confirmation.

Currently, the iPhone 14 series supports it — and Apple has previously announced its own Emergency SOS via Satellite feature — but otherwise, support remains relatively scarce. 

Qualcomm has previously announced Snapdragon Satellite, a feature that will bring satellite-based support to devices using its processing chips. Qualcomm has said support will arrive for devices using the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset, although this doesn’t include phones that currently use it, as it does still require additional antennae to function. 

Snapdragon Satellite will also improve upon Apple’s offering, by offering two-way messaging via satellite, compared to Apple’s service, which only offers one-way messaging support. 

How does Optus’ partnership differ from Telstra's?

It could just be purely coincidental timing, but Optus’ announcement of its Starlink partnership comes just over a week after Telstra announced its own agreement. But rather than Optus announcing a competitor service, there is actually much to separate the two. 

Whereas Optus will focus on improving mobile coverage for rural Australians — and by and large, mobile coverage for all Optus customers nationwide — Telstra’s partnership will focus on improving broadband and internet services. 

Telstra has also yet to announce pricing and full availability, but has said we can expect to see the first stages of the partnership rolling out by the end of 2023. Through the agreement, customers — both residential and business — will be able to obtain a Starlink-based satellite internet service through Telstra. Telstra will then take care of installation and will offer local tech support. A Starlink internet service will also be billed through Telstra. 

At the time of the announcement, Telstra explained why it had chosen Starlink, as opposed to the NBN Co’s Sky Muster service, to deliver satellite broadband to rural areas of the country. A spokesperson said, “To date, we do not believe Sky Muster services are the best solution for our customers’ needs. We are excited to be able to offer Starlink-based services, along with NBN fixed wireless services, to offer high speed, reliable connectivity solutions to customers in rural and remote Australia.”

Max Langridge
Senior Editor, Tom's Guide AU

Max is a digital content writer for Tom’s Guide in Australia, where he covers all things internet-related, including NBN and the emerging alternatives, along with audio and visual products such as headphones and TVs. Max started his career in his homeland of England, where he spent time working for What Hi-Fi? and Pocket-lint, before moving to Australia in 2018.