An engineer in Midland, Texas, made history by dialing a mobile phone in Rakuten, Japan, and successfully completing a voice call using a Samsung Galaxy. What made this call unique was that it was carried out through a satellite, transmitting signals over 300 miles overhead instead of utilizing a nearby cell tower.
AST SpaceMobile, the company that conducted the demonstration, claims that this was the first voice call made through satellite relay using an unmodified mobile phone. While satellite phones have been available for some time, they are specialized and expensive. The demonstration with the Samsung Galaxy proves that mobile phones designed for cell tower usage can now leverage satellite technology for high bandwidth applications.
Mobile phones have become ubiquitous, but there are still areas around the world where they do not work due to geographical challenges or low population density. AST SpaceMobile, in collaboration with major telecom companies like AT&T and Vodafone, aims to fill these coverage gaps with its satellite network as a profitable business model.
Other companies are also exploring satellite-based mobile connectivity solutions. Apple has partnered with satellite operator GlobalStar to offer emergency text message services on its newest iPhones. SpaceX is working with T-Mobile to utilize its Starlink network for low-bandwidth messaging. Lynk, a space start-up, plans to provide coverage through its own satellites, using partnerships with terrestrial phone companies.
AST SpaceMobile, which went public in 2021, has an ambitious vision to provide enough bandwidth for voice calls through its satellite network. Overcoming the challenge of mobile phones’ limited transmitting power and small antennas requires specialized software. However, achieving high-quality connections at such distances remains difficult.
AST’s approach involves equipping its satellites with large antennas. Its BlueWalker-3 spacecraft, launched last year, boasts a 693 square foot antenna, possibly the largest ever in low-Earth orbit. This allows for easier communication with mobile phone signals. However, concerns about space debris and interference with astronomical observations have been raised.
The demand for connectivity continues to grow, especially in rural areas and less economically developed countries. However, space infrastructure remains costly. Although Apple invested over $300 million to enable space connectivity on iPhones, this is a small fraction compared to its iPhone sales. AST SpaceMobile estimates it will need more than $550 million to complete its network expansion.
Regulation is another hurdle, as AST SpaceMobile currently lacks permission from the Federal Communications Commission to operate its service. Obtaining approval and ensuring no interference with other networks will require significant effort. The recent voice call utilized spectrum owned by AT&T.
Monetizing perpetual connectivity remains a question for companies in this space. A deep-pocketed partner appears essential for launching such a business. Telecommunication and device manufacturers are increasingly embracing network agnosticism to connect efficiently, with satellites playing a role in the solution.