Google and AT&T invest in Starlink rival for satellite-to-smartphone service

Enlarge / Illustration of AST SpaceMobile’s cellular satellite.

AST SpaceMobile

Google, AT&T, and Vodafone are investing $206.5 million in AST SpaceMobile, a Starlink competitor that plans to offer smartphone service from low-Earth-orbit satellites.

This is the first investment in AST SpaceMobile from Google and AT&T, while Vodafone had already put money into the satellite company. AST SpaceMobile announced the funding in a press release on Thursday and announced a $100 million public offering of its stock on the same day.

“Vodafone and AT&T have placed purchase orders for network equipment from AST SpaceMobile to support planned commercial service,” the satellite company said. Google has meanwhile “agreed to collaborate on product development, testing, and implementation plans for SpaceMobile network connectivity on Android and related devices.” AST, which has one very large test satellite in orbit, previously received investments from Rakuten, American Tower, and Bell Canada.

SpaceX subsidiary Starlink has deals with T-Mobile in the US and several carriers in other countries for satellite-to-smartphone service. T-Mobile is expected to offer Starlink-enabled text messaging this year, with voice and data service beginning sometime in 2025.

Though AT&T hadn’t previously invested in AST SpaceMobile, the companies were already working together. AT&T is leasing spectrum in the 700 MHz and 850 MHz bands to AST SpaceMobile. They plan “to provide mobile broadband to unserved and underserved areas covered by the Leased Spectrum,” the companies told the Federal Communications Commission in an application last year.

AST SpaceMobile's BlueWalker 3 test satellite, which is 693 square feet in size.
Enlarge / AST SpaceMobile’s BlueWalker 3 test satellite, which is 693 square feet in size.

AST SpaceMobile

For hard-to-reach areas

Satellite-to-smartphone technology is generally seen as a supplement to cellular networks in hard-to-reach areas. “Because AST’s technology can focus satellite coverage in discrete portions of licensed areas, it does not need a nationwide swath of terrestrial mobile spectrum that a mobile network operator licensee has left fallow. Rather than displacing terrestrial network facilities nationwide, AST’s coverage will be complementary to AT&T’s extensive terrestrial network coverage,” the companies’ FCC filing said.

In April 2023, the companies announced that they completed the first two-way voice calls using AST SpaceMobile’s test satellite with standard mobile phones. “The first voice call was made from the Midland, Texas area to Rakuten in Japan over AT&T spectrum using a Samsung Galaxy S22 smartphone,” the announcement said.

In September 2023, AST SpaceMobile said it made “the first-ever 5G connection for voice and data between an everyday, unmodified smartphone and a satellite in space” and that it achieved a download rate of 14Mbps.

Five satellites should launch soon

AST SpaceMobile’s prototype satellite launched from a SpaceX rocket in September 2022. AST’s early plans detailed in 2020 called for 243 satellites overall, and its first five satellites for commercial operations are expected to launch by March 31, 2024. AST is manufacturing the satellites at its Texas facilities.

The prototype satellite delivers data over 5 MHz channels. “For the company’s planned operational satellites, beams are designed to support capacity of up to 40 Mhz, potentially enabling data transmission speeds of up to 120Mbps,” the company said.

An AST description of its satellite says it has “a large surface area of phased-array antennas, which work together to electronically form, steer, and shape wireless communication beams into cells of coverage,” similarly to cell towers on the ground. AST says its BlueWalker 3 test satellite is 693 square feet.

AST said it has “over 40 agreements and understandings with mobile network operators globally, who collectively service over 2 billion subscribers.” Besides Vodafone and AT&T, these “agreements and understandings” are with firms including Rakuten Mobile, Bell Canada, Orange, Telefonica, TIM, MTN, Saudi Telecom Company, Zain KSA, Etisalat, Indosat Ooredoo Hutchison, Telkomsel, Smart Communications, Globe Telecom, Millicom, Smartfren, Telecom Argentina, Telstra, Africell, and Liberty Latin America.

While Starlink already has over 5,000 satellites delivering home Internet service and plans to launch tens of thousands more, it isn’t too far ahead of AST SpaceMobile in terms of cellular-enabled satellites. SpaceX launched the first six Starlink satellites that can provide cellular transmissions to standard LTE phones a few weeks ago and demonstrated the technology with text messages sent between T-Mobile phones.

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