New 243-strong satellite system will bring 4G and 5G to equatorial regions

  • Partnership between Vodafone and AST SpaceMobile will serve 1.6 billion people
  • Commercial services planned for 2023 across 49 countries
  • System is, essentially, cell towers in space and therefore compatible with all regular handsets
  • But the satellites are big and heavy and NASA is not happy with where they will be placed

Popular orbits around the earth are now so congested that satellites are either lining up like ducks in a row to loop around the planet or are being launched with big rubber bumpers glued around 'em, fairground dodgem style, to help barge their way into their slots and fend off pushy usurpers afterwards. So, at first glance the announcement of yet another space-based mobile network might seem to be gilding the lily somewhat given the amount all the redundant junk and defunct satellites circling the planet are now becoming a major problem. However, Vodafone and Texas-headquartered AST SpaceMobile have revealed plans to build and manage a new space-based mobile wireless constellation, and, to be fair, it is one that really is needed.

The new system will provide coverage for 1.6 billion people in the 49 biggest countries in the planet's equatorial regions with commercial service beginning in 2023. Nations to be served by the new constellation include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania. Interestingly and perhaps significantly, regulatory approval is being sought to provide service in India.

The equatorial regions, many of which are rural and remote, are not well served by comparatively inexpensive communications satellite technology and it is claimed that the venture will use AST SpaceMobile patented technology that will be the first of its kind to connect ordinary mobile handsets at 4G and 5G speeds. Apparently the technology is compatible with all regular handsets and thus there will be no need for modifications, special hardware or expensive ground antenna systems.

That said, AST is being extremely coy on exactly how the new technology works, saying only that "our engineers have designed an entirely new form factor and deployment method that significantly reduce the time and costs associated with manufacturing, launching and operating satellites. Leveraging proven technologies, ultra-powerful SpaceMobile satellites will provide 2G/3G/4G LTE/5G and NB-IoT connectivity to standard mobile phones and IoT devices." Narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT) is a low power wide area network radio technology standard developed by 3GPP to enable a wide range of cellular devices and services. 

The SpaceMobile satellites are unusually large for LEO systems, they weigh more than a tonne each and are up to 10 times bigger than the norm because they are, essentially, cell towers in space. They are fitted with 900 square metres phased-array antennas and moving the satellites around will be complex in the extreme. NASA says, "For the completed constellation of 243 satellites, one can expect 1,500 mitigation actions per year and perhaps 15,000 planning activities. This would equate to four manoeuvres and 40 active planning activities on any given day."

Currently in regions north and south of the Equator more than five billion people constantly move in and out of what limited mobile coverage there is and the intent is that the new solution will fill coverage gaps to provide seamless mobile connectivity. The first iteration of the system will be based on a tranche of 20 LEO satellites and Vodafone will integrate the technology into the services provided by its Vodacom, Safaricom and Vodafone brands.

To pay for it all (or some of it) AST SpaceMobile has secured up to US$462 million in additional financing which will come come from existing investors such as American Tower, Rakuten and Vodafone (which is a lead strategic partner in the venture) as well as new investors, hedge funds and other financial institutions.

Simultaneously, AST SpaceMobile has also confirmed that it is going public in Q1, 2020 via a merger with New Providence Acquisition Corporation, which is described as "a special purpose acquisition company." The combined enterprise is valued at $1.4 billion and when the merger is completed it will become a publicly traded company listed on the NASDAQ.

Real danger of catastrophic collisions with other satellite systems

In spring the company sent into orbit an experimental test satellite called BlueWalker 1 and a second, BlueWalker 3, will follow in late 2021. Nothing has been said about what happened to BlueWalker 2. Perhaps it went Walkabout? Thereafter, provided all goes well, an initial tranche of 20 satellites will be placed in orbit during the second half of 2022 and be ready for commercial operation sometime in 2023.

That first part of the plan will cost some $510 million overall and given that the company calculates it will have $541 million to play with when it goes public, money could quickly get tight if things go wrong and the plan is delayed. Investors and management alike will be on tenterhooks until revenues begin to flow sometime in 2023 because the next phase, which will see the remainder of the 243-strong satellite system being launched, will cost at least $1.2 billion, but will provide global comms coverage.

AST reckons it will not be cash-flow positive until three years from now and any slippages in the launch timetable could cause big problems but the company is bullish, claiming that it has "first mover advantage to establish market position, with no competition yet identified." An investor presentation estimates that when limited commercial service begins in 2023 it will quickly garner some nine million subscribers who will pay about $20 a month - a lot of money in many equatorial countries. Thereafter, it is calculated that subscriber numbers will be 44 million in 2024 when revenues will hit a billion bucks per annum. By 2027 AST says SpaceMobile will be earning revenues in excess of $9.6 billion a year. 

The constellation will orbit at a height of 720 kilometres but the company is keeping schtum about whose and which rockets will be used to loft the satellites into space, and the satellites are big. So big in fact that a couple of months ago the US space agency NASA, having looked at SpaceMobile's plans, complained the "extremely large satellites when in orbit will engender an unacceptably high risk of a catastrophic debris-producing collision."

The altitude and orbits of the SpaceMobile satellites are uncomfortably close to the "A-Train" line of 10 earth-science monitoring satellites operated by NASA, the US Geological Survey and scientific bodies in both France and Japan. A NASA statement says. "Historical experience with the A-Train constellation has shown that this particular region of space tends to produce a large number of conjunctions between space objects". In other words, a series of accidents waiting to happen and a massive threat that will need to be completely mitigated if the new constellation is ever to fulfil its undoubted potential. Expect serious regulatory oversight.

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