AT&T, AST SpaceMobile complete space-based voice call using unmodified phone

AST SpaceMobile is claiming that, for the first time ever, it completed a direct voice connection from space to an unmodified smartphone, marking a major milestone in its mission to provide connectivity to people who aren’t covered by terrestrial cellular networks.

The test call was made from the Midland, Texas, area to Rakuten in Japan using AT&T’s Band 5/850 MHz spectrum. Engineers from Vodafone, Rakuten and AT&T participated in the call, which used a Samsung Galaxy S22 smartphone. Space-based connectivity was provided through AST SpaceMobile’s BlueWalker 3 (BW3) satellite.

One of the key points is it used an unmodified smartphone. Other services, like the SOS service that Apple offers through its deal with Globalstar, require special chips in the devices. Lynk Global also is targeting unmodified smartphones, but it’s initial offerings will be text-only.

"Achieving what many once considered impossible, we have reached the most significant milestone to date in our quest to deliver global cellular broadband from space. While we take a moment to celebrate this tremendous accomplishment, we remain focused on the path ahead and pivotal next steps that get us closer to our goal of transforming the way the world connects," said AST SpaceMobile Chairman and CEO Abel Avellan in a statement. “I am immensely proud of our team and our incredible partners, whose unwavering dedication and tireless efforts have brought us to this pivotal moment."

Last fall, AT&T CEO John Stankey told Bloomberg that the operator, in its partnership with AST SpaceMobile, figures it's about 18 months ahead of T-Mobile and its efforts with SpaceX to bring a similar satellite-to-cellular service to market.

Later in 2022, AT&T’s Chris Sambar, head of AT&T Network, participated in a video explaining how AT&T’s partnership with AST Space Mobile evolved and the prospects of using the service to help first responders. FirstNet, which uses AT&T’s 700 MHz network, could get coverage immediately where first responders need it through a service powered by AST SpaceMobile.

“AT&T’s heritage began with the birth of the telephone 147 years ago and has continued with many other firsts including: trans-continental call, overseas call, call from the moon, and partnering to deliver the only network built with and for America’s first responders,” Sambar said in a statement today. “We connect people to greater possibility, and this important milestone with AST SpaceMobile is a big step and we can’t wait to see what’s next in our space-based journey.”

Differentiation from others

Recon Analytics analyst Roger Entner said that where AST and AT&T differentiate themselves from the other cellular/satellite ventures is the data throughput they promise: speeds of up to 50 Mbps and the ability for streaming video. That’s particularly relevant for first responders when fighting fires or recovering victims from a plane crash in remote areas. With streaming video, they can see what’s going on before they reach the scene rather than having someone describe it, he said.

Beyond first responders, the ability to eliminate outdoor dead spots and provide full geographic coverage is huge, he said. Based on Recon Analytics' data and 161,976 survey respondents, the ability to "make a call anywhere" is the third most important purchase decision factor. 

But AST SpaceMobile and AT&T need the FCC’s blessing before anything comes to fruition. “The FCC needs to allow AST to use regular terrestrial frequencies that have been exclusive to mobile service also for satellite service,” he said.

Last month, the FCC moved toward new rules governing what it calls Supplemental Coverage from Space (SCS), which enables these kinds of services. Initially, the rules proposed excluding FirstNet’s Band 14, but the footnote that explicitly excluded Band 14 was removed before the item was approved by the full commission, an AT&T spokesperson noted, adding that they anticipate the rules will be finalized over the coming months.