How imminent is mobile phone connectivity via AST SpaceMobile?

AST SpaceMobile announced this week that it had successfully unfolded, while in orbit, the communications array for its test satellite, BlueWalker 3.

The company has made a name for itself while striving toward its goal to provide connectivity to regular mobile phones via a low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite network. It has prominent partners, including AT&T, Rakuten Mobile, Vodafone and American Tower.

AST SpaceMobile CEO Abel Avellan said, “Every person should have the right to access cellular broadband, regardless of where they live or work. The successful unfolding of BlueWalker 3 is a major step forward for our patented space-based cellular broadband technology and paves the way for the ongoing production of our BlueBird satellites.”

But how imminent is AST’s mobile-to-satellite network, really?

The company has launched only two satellites so far. The first one, launched in 2019, was just a proof of concept. The company is no longer using it, although it’s still in orbit. And now it has launched BlueWalker 3 and opened its array.

TMF Associates satellite analyst Tim Farrar has joked on Twitter about AST’s “cult” following.

Asked what he meant by that, Farrar told Fierce that over the years there have been spikes of investor excitement about satellite ventures, which then later petered out. “You do get these fan clubs of people all getting super excited about this technology that they don’t necessarily understand.”

Fararr said AST SpaceMobile has a lot of hurdles to jump before it’s actually offering a space-to-mobile broadband service. It has to test BlueWalker 3: proving it can control the satellite from earth, form beams, and connect to people’s phones. It has to raise money to launch more satellites. It has to obtain spectrum approvals from the FCC and the ITU. And it has to ultimately convince people they should buy the services it enables.

Scott Wisniewski, AST’s chief strategy officer, talked to Fierce about the company’s roadmap.

He said AST’s plan calls for 168 satellites. The first 20 will be for equatorial coverage. The next 90 will provide “substantial global coverage,” and the final 58 will have MIMO antenna capabilities, which are “important for Rakuten,” said Wisniewski.

It plans to launch five more satellites in 2023.

Other LEO operators are deploying many more satellites. For instance, SpaceX has already deployed more than 2,300 Starlink satellites and is continuing to deploy at a rapid pace.

But AST’s technology is different in that its satellites are a lot bigger. Wisniewski said this gives its birds a much larger field-of-view. According to its announcement, BlueWalker 3 is the largest-ever commercial communications array deployed in LEO. Now that it has been unfolded, the satellite spans 693 square feet in size. It has a field-of-view on the Earth of 700 miles. (**Note, this number has been corrected from 1,800 miles. The next generation of satellites will have a field-of-view of 1,800 miles).

Aside from all the technical challenges, AST has to secure spectrum. It’s filed applications with the ITU for spectrum priority internationally. And it also has applications with various countries. In the U.S. it’s filed spectrum applications with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to lease terrestrial spectrum from AT&T.

It’s already received spectrum approvals from seven different countries in Africa and Asia.

Farrar said in its earlier days, AST talked a lot about its ultimate goal of connecting regular mobile phones via its satellite network, offering 30 Mbps and talking about indoor coverage. But he wondered whether that talk was setting expectations a little too high.

Indeed, Wisniewski said the company expects the five satellites it launches next year to have the ability to offer service. But he said the service “will be intermittent, which is not attractive.”

Its competitors in the mobile phone/satellite network arena have begun with lower expectations.

Apple and Globalstar are initially working on emergency satellite texting via cellphones.

And T-Mobile and SpaceX are starting with text messaging to assist people when off the grid and out of terrestrial cell phone range.