AT&T leases spectrum to AST SpaceMobile

AT&T is moving closer to making satellite-to-cellular calling a reality by entering a long-term spectrum lease agreement with AST SpaceMobile. In an FCC filing, AT&T said that it will lease to AST certain 850 MHz cellular A and B block spectrum as well as certain lower 700 MHz B and C block spectrum.

An AT&T spokeswoman explained that the leases are ‘non-exclusive’ and that AST’s satellites will not transmit in areas covered by AT&T’s terrestrial cellular network. “For example, we might cover 80 percent of the area of a 700 MHz license, and AST could train spot beams on the remainder,” she said.

In the FCC filing, AT&T further elaborated on the deal, noting that AST intends to provide broadband access “directly to AT&T customer handsets that operate on the Leased Spectrum, without any modifications or the use of special chipsets, and without the buildout of any additional terrestrial wireless infrastructure.”

AT&T further noted that this arrangement includes providing temporary coverage after natural disasters.

The lease arrangement is intended to begin immediately but AST must get FCC approval before it can start transmitting in the designated spectrum bands.

AT&T’s decision to lease spectrum to AST SpaceMobile demonstrates the operator’s growing support for direct satellite-to-cellular communications. This announcement comes just a few weeks after AST completed what it claims is the first direct voice connection from space on an unmodified smartphone. That test call, which was conducted in Midland, Texas, used AT&T’s Band 5/850 MHz spectrum and was conducted over a Samsung Galaxy S22 smartphone.

One big differentiator of AST’s direct satellite-to-cellular system is that it can work with an unmodified smartphone. Lynk Global also plans to. use unmodified smartphones, but it’s initial offerings will be text-only.

Using satellite connectivity to fill in gaps in cellular coverage areas is a growing area of interest in the mobile industry.  Last August T-Mobile said it was working with SpaceX’s Starlink satellite service to put an end to “dead zones” or gaps in cellular coverage. The service will use a dedicated slice of mid-band 1.9 GHz PCS spectrum and special base-station type equipment that will be placed on Starlink satellites to connect with cellular devices on the ground. However, that service has not launched yet.

In addition, Apple last fall debuted an emergency SOS service that uses Globalstar’s satellite network but it’s only available for users with an iPhone 14 and requires special chipsets to work. Likewise, Qualcomm teamed with Iridium earlier this year to bring satellite-to-cellular connectivity to Android devices. So far smartphone makers Honor, Motorola, Nothing, Oppo, Vivo, and Xiaomi have said they will support  Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Satellite platform.