Mobile service provider Vodafone this week reiterated its faith in the satellite-to-phone technology of AST SpaceMobile, a Midland, Texas-based startup that has partnered with Vodafone and received investment money from the international carrier.
In a video posted by AST SpaceMobile, Vodafone CTO Johan Wibergh said his company—an international wireless carrier giant with 300 million subscribers and almost 200,000 towers—had its research-and-development team evaluate AST SpaceMobile technical approach after beginning talks with the Texas-based startup in 2018.
“We have quite a lot of skilled engineers that know what works and what doesn’t work, and we’ve also been part of standardizing the technology for many years,” Wibergh said while speaking in the video. “There were multiple meetings between AST and Vodafone discussing the technical solution—what are the challenges, how they would overcome [the challenges], etc.
“We got fairly quickly to the conclusion that, ‘Yeah, we really believe in this.’ We think this is a great idea, and we think it’s very realistic that it can succeed. And hence, we decided to invest in AST SpaceMobile.”
AST SpaceMobile is one of many companies with ambitious plans to launch low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites that are designed to support broadband connectivity globally, but the most high-profile of these ventures—for example, the Starlink or OneWeb products—require customers to have special ground equipment to receive signals. In contrast, AST SpaceMobile promises that its LEO satellites will act as LTE cell towers in space, connecting directly to customers’ smart devices, according to Wibergh.
“We see many different companies now trying to launch new space-based networks,” he said. “I think what is unique in the partnership here—and is unique in what AST is doing—is it’s the only technical solution where you actually can use your existing device. All the other space-based connectivity is based on new types of devices, new types of phones, and that really limits the uptake and the cost.”
“Now, they [other satellite companies with special user equipment] are good and complementary services, but this is really the mainstream, from what I see.”
AST SpaceMobile is not the only company pursuing this notion of providing satellite connectivity directly to an unmodified cell phone or other smart device. Lynk Mobile also has announced successful tests of its satellite-to-phone technology and its plans to launch text-based commercial service beginning this year.
While the AST SpaceMobile and Lynk Mobile are both trying to deliver satellite-to-phone connectivity, they are taking very different approaches to delivering service. Lynk Mobile has proposed deploying thousands of smaller LEO satellites, while AST SpaceMobile plans to use a lesser number of very large LEO satellites to support connectivity directly to smart devices being used on Earth.
AST SpaceMobile CEO Abel Avellan said his companies plans to use larger satellites is driven by physics.
“There is no magic,” Avellan said during an interview last year with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “You need size and you need power to connect to a phone, so our satellites are multi-ton—they are roughly the size of a pickup truck when we put them in the launchers, and then they deploy to a large phase array [antenna] that connect directly to a handset. So these are very, very different from the other type of satellites and constellations.”
“It’s math. You either have a very large satellite connected to a regular phone, or you have large satellite phone—with a large satellite-phone antenna—connecting to a smaller satellite.”
Wibergh said that combining satellite-to-phone technology from AST SpaceMobile with robust terrestrial coverage is attractive to a carrier like Vodafone.
“The great innovation with AST SpaceMobile is that your phone will automatically discover the satellite, and your phone will automatically connect to the satellite, and you will be connected to the internet—you can browse, you can make phone calls,” Wibergh said. “That’s a great service to our customers, and we believe in the feasibility of the technology.
“What really motivated us is that we thought this would be a great complement service to our customers. We have ground-based networks, but we don’t have ubiquitous coverage. By adding the satellite coverage from AST SpaceMobile, we would basically have ubiquitous coverage everywhere we were operating.”
Vodafone expects to include AST SpaceMobile as part of service offerings to customers and believes the satellite-to-phone connectivity can address a significant challenge.
“We will never have coverage from all of the Earth as we’re building mobile networks today,” Wibergh said. “It just isn’t possible. It’s too expensive, and you can’t provide coverage when you’re in an airplane or out on the sea. By using satellites, we can actually provide connectivity wherever you are on this planet. Your regular, normal phone suddenly has connectivity wherever you are.
“We want to provide as simple and seamless [an] experience as possible for our customers, so we would make it available as part of their plan. As soon as they move outside coverage on the ground, automatically their connection would switch to be working through the AST SpaceMobile satellite. You, as a customer, would just continue to communicate, without even knowing that you made that change.”
While Vodafone’s focus is on commercial use cases, many public-safety officials and other representatives of the critical-communications industry have expressed a high degree of interest in satellite-to-phone connectivity, with former FirstNet Authority Vice Chair Jeff Johnson often referencing such technology a “potential game-changer.”
For first responders, such space-based solutions could address connectivity issues created by a natural or man-made disaster wiping out terrestrial coverage—potentially solving both coverage issues and making a large percentage of outdoor “off-network” communications concerns a moot point. In addition, customers with satellite-to-phone connectivity would be able to call 911 or other emergency service for help outside of the terrestrial service area of their carriers.