AT&T CEO says company is ahead in satellite-to-cellular connectivity

AT&T CEO John Stankey confirmed that the operator is partnering with AST SpaceMobile to provide connectivity in dead zones in the U.S. and said that AT&T is about 18 months ahead of competitor T-Mobile, which announced in August that was working with SpaceX on a similar satellite-to-cellular connectivity service to provide coverage in dead zones.

In a Bloomberg article, Stankey said that initially the satellite service will be for emergencies, including providing connectivity for FirstNet, the company’s public safety network. But AT&T also plans to launch a consumer application that would incorporate the satellite connectivity, Stankey said.

This is the first time AT&T has provided any details about its work with AST SpaceMobile. In May, AST SpaceMobile said that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had granted it an experimental license to test its BlueWalker 3 satellite. The experimental license allowed AST SpaceMobile to conduct BlueWalker 3 space-to-ground testing in the U.S. using 3GPP low-band cellular frequencies and Q/V-band frequencies. Light Reading reported that AST’s testing appeared to be using spectrum licenses owned by AT&T.  

Stankey said that AT&T and AST SpaceMobile are “comfortable” with the test data and the next step is to present that data to the FCC and ask the agency for approval to use the spectrum licenses for satellite transmissions.  

SpaceX and T-Mobile did not say when they thought their satellite-to-cellular service would be ready for commercial use but SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in August that the company first had to construct special antennas for its satellites so they can pick up a cell signal in space. The companies also will need to get regulatory approval from the FCC to use T-Mobile’s 1.9 GHz PCS spectrum for this type of satellite communications.

Meanwhile, AST SpaceMobile already has a patented technology that can connect base stations in space with cell phones. Besides its deal with AT&T, the company also has relationships with Vodafone and Rakuten Mobile.

This isn’t AT&T’s first foray into providing dual satellite and cellular service.  In 2010 the company teamed with satellite provider TerreStar Networks and launched a dual-mode phone, called the TerreStar Genus that was able to access TerreStar’s satellite network when AT&T’s service was not available. However, later that year TerreStar filed for bankruptcy and in 2011 Dish Network purchased TerreStar for $1.38 billion.

Apple has also jumped on the satellite bandwagon and its new iPhone 14 comes with a text message service, called Emergency SOS via Satellite, that will provide assistance to people when they’re in remote areas without regular cell phone coverage. The service will use Globalstar’s satellites and is available for free for two years for Apple iPhone 14 users.