AT&T, Verizon give AST SpaceMobile a spectrum boost

  • Both AT&T and Verizon are working with AST SpaceMobile on their satellite-to-smartphone service strategies
  • They have both agreed to share part of their 850 MHz spectrum to enable nationwide coverage in the US from the AST SpaceMobile network
  • The shared spectrum move should benefit AT&T and Verizon customers eventually, but AST SpaceMobile is lagging with the launch of its ‘giant cell tower in space’ satellites

AST SpaceMobile is fast emerging as one of the more credible and viable direct satellite-to-smartphone communications network operators following recent agreements with and financial support from US telco giants AT&T and Verizon. Both telcos have now agreed to each share a slice of their 850 MHz low-band spectrum with the satellite hopeful in an effort to offer their customers communications service availability across the whole of the US, even in the remotest of areas. 

The spectrum sharing arrangement was announced by AST SpaceMobile chairman and CEO Abel Avellan in a letter to shareholders and partners earlier this week that was full of positive energy and statements about “accelerating our mission to eliminate connectivity gaps across the United States” and being “uniquely positioned to achieve a groundbreaking feat: Target 100% geographical coverage throughout the continental US, the most valuable wireless market in the world.”

Having a target is one thing – hitting it is another. And it’ll be easier for AST SpaceMobile to hit that target once it actually has some of its ‘giant cell tower in space’ satellites in orbit and is able to provide the services the company believes will make it a valuable partner to mobile operators around the world. More on that in a moment – first, the latest arrangement with the giant US telco duo. 

In January this year, AT&T and Google joined Vodafone in a new $155m funding round for AST SpaceMobile, adding further major names to the growing roster of supporters for the low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite operator. Then in May, AT&T signed a six-year commercial deal with the satellite player: Weeks later, AT&T’s head of network, Chris Sambar, joined the AST SpaceMobile board.  

Also in May, Verizon announced it will use AST SpaceMobile’s network to provide satellite-to-smartphone services across the US using 850 MHz spectrum, with the giant operator committing $100m to the satellite firm in the form of commercial prepayments and convertible note funding (a loan that will be converted into equity at a later date).  

Now, “AT&T and Verizon together will share with AST SpaceMobile a portion of their respective bands of 850 MHz low-band spectrum to enable nationwide satellite coverage,” noted Avellan in his letter. He added that the low-band spectrum is ideally suited to meet his company’s needs because the “longer wavelengths of low-band spectrum allow for wider signal coverage, minimising dead zones and dropped calls”, as well as penetrating deeper into buildings and through foliage “compared to higher frequencies… This ensures our signals will reach you wherever you are, even in remote areas with limited terrestrial infrastructure.” The spectrum is also compatible with regular smartphones. 

Neither AT&T or Verizon need to reallocate any spectrum resources: AST SpaceMobile will use the telcos’ spectrum in conjunction with its terrestrial operations and manage it in a neutral way so that, effectively, an AT&T subscriber might connect via Verizon’s spectrum and vice versa. “Whether you are an AT&T or Verizon subscriber, the space-to-cell connection is designed to work transparently, meaning you won’t need to worry about which carrier’s 850 MHz spectrum is being used,” explained Avellan. 

“This collaboration highlights the effectiveness of collective action. By combining AST SpaceMobile’s innovative space-based network with the extensive terrestrial networks and expertise of both AT&T and Verizon, we are creating a solution that benefits everyone. Consumers gain unparalleled access to space-based cellular broadband, businesses can expand into previously unreachable regions, and first responders and rural communities will no longer be left behind in the digital age,” he added.

When he says everyone, he means, of course, the collective mobile customer bases of the two US telcos, who will benefit if they sign up for whatever ‘be connected anywhere’ packages AT&T and Verizon will offer once the ubiquitous coverage service is available. 

That may well come after T-Mobile US, the other main US mobile operator, is able to offer its own satellite-to-smartphone service, which it is developing with Elon Musk’s SpaceX/Starlink. T-Mobile US struck a deal with Starlink to offer satellite-to-smartphone services in August 2022 and it looks like they are ahead of their rivals: Starlink, the LEO operating unit of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, launched its first direct-to-cell satellites at the start of the year and has been undergoing service tests with T-Mobile US since then. Starlink and T-Mobile US recently completed a video call via the Starlink LEO direct-to-cell satellite constellation using regular smartphones, the satellite giant announced on X. “We’re excited to go live with @TMobile later this year,” noted the satellite firm in its post.

Quite when AST SpaceMobile, which has just rejigged its management team, will be in a similar position is uncertain and the timing of any service launch with AT&T and Verizon was not mentioned by the CEO in his letter. There’s no doubt that the company has innovative and ground-breaking technology – it has developed a massive 64 square metres antenna array (equivalent in size to about one quarter of a tennis court) that folds out once the satellite is in orbit as well as its own low-power application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) chipset that has been “developed to enable up to a tenfold improvement in processing bandwidth on each satellite,” according to the company.  

But despite launching its prototype BlueWalker 3 test satellite in 2022 and subsequently using it for multiple tests and trials, the launch of its first five commercial BlueBird satellites has suffered multiple delays due to subsystem supplier issues: The latest timeframe for the delivery of the satellites to the launch site is “between July and August of 2024”, so something should be happening quite soon. 

After that, the plan is to launch satellites with an even larger antenna array footprint, as subsequent BlueBirds will be more than three times as big once unfurled (223 square metres): The first of those is scheduled to go into orbit between December 2024 and March 2025. 

In the meantime, AST SpaceMobile’s 40-plus telco partners, which also include Rakuten Mobile and Telefónica, are playing the waiting game, while Starlink presses ahead with its partners, and another satellite-to-smartphone specialist, Lynk Mobile, starts commercial pilot services with the likes of Globe Telecom – see Globe readies sat2phone service pilot in the Philippines.

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV

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