Ma Bell's in space: AST SpaceMobile readies for take-off

  • AST SpaceMobile is planning launch commercial satellites in Q1

  • AT&T will use its service

  • T-Mobile and SpaceX plan to offer similar service this year — as will others

In space, soon everybody will be able to hear you talk, or at least read the text messages you bounced off satellites. Earlier this year, SpaceX launched their first low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites capable of direct-to-cell communications. The tech company is working with T-Mobile to test and provide this service, and T-Mobile has dedicated a portion of its 1900 MHz spectrum, which can be used for 4G or 5G calls, to the service.

Satellite firm, AST SpaceMobile, meanwhile is working with AT&T to provide a similar type of service. AST's CEO Abel Avellan told Fierce at Mobile World Congress last week that connecting calls via AST won’t require dedicated spectrum like the SpaceX/T-Mobile service. Nonetheless, AT&T leased some 850 MHz and 700 MHz spectrum to AST in May 2023.

Interestingly, AST SpaceMobile actually managed a space first by completing the earliest two-way 5G voice call using unmodified smartphones connected to its BlueWalker 3 satellite in April 2023. As a result, Avellan explained that he believes that AST SpaceMobile is the only company that can promise “true broadband speed” from space.

Satellite size matters

The CEO said that at lot of this is down to the size of the satellites his company is putting up. “They are...45 feet by 45 feet. They are big,” he explained. “The reason why they are huge is to provide enough capacity to guarantee broadband. In essence they are a repeater.”

Here's how it all works: The satellite is able to pick up the signal from a mobile phone and bounce it back to a gateway, which links to the cellular operator, AT&T in this case. To cover a country like the U.S. you would need three gateways, the CEO said.

Avellan noted that it takes around 60 satellites to provide continuous service to the U.S. “We will launch the first five commercials in this quarter,” he said. The company then plans to ramp up to four new satellites per month. “It will be sometime in [20]24 or [20]25, we will start continued service,” he said. “Even now with these five, we will be able to provide broadband."

With only five satellites in orbit, though, services will be limited to start.

On the plus side, 5G smartphones won’t require a gateway to connect directly to the AST SpaceMobile satellites, the CEO said, claiming that is a big difference between his company and rivals — of which there are plenty.

Space rivals

When it comes to the competition, T-Mobile and SpaceX seem furthest along their path with a plan to launch commercial services this year.

Rogers has partnered with Lynx Mobile to provide Canadians with direct satellite-to-cell service. Lynx has five satellites in orbit to date and already sent the first text from space.

Amazon said it has recently sent two prototypes for its Project Kuiper service into space. This will be more of a rival to SpaceX’s Starlink than a specific direct cell-to-satellite service.

Clearly there will be a lot more communications satellites in service in the next few years and a lot more space junk!