Space

AST SpaceMobile licensed to connect test satellite to US cellular phones

TAMPA, Fla. — AST SpaceMobile secured an experimental license May 2 to test services in the United States from BlueWalker 3, the prototype satellite slated to launch this summer for its planned cellphone-compatible broadband constellation.

The license from the Federal Communications Commission permits the company to connect unmodified cellular devices in Texas and Hawaii with BlueWalker 3 for up to several minutes daily.

SpaceX is slated to launch BlueWalker 3 to low Earth orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket with other passengers.

AST SpaceMobile said it has regulatory permission for BlueWalker 3 to use cellular frequencies to connect to phones in the U.S. — and then spectrum in Q and V bands to direct the traffic back to gateways on the ground — under certain restrictions.

“The BlueWalker 3 satellite would give us about five minutes of coverage in most areas around the world every day, which we plan to use to configure our software and other systems related to the network core,” AST SpaceMobile chief strategy officer Scott Wisniewski told SpaceNews.

“Such coverage should also provide opportunities to explore numerous uses of cellular broadband, including texting, voice, and data applications.”

BlueWalker-3 has a 64-square-meter phased array antenna that will be stowed for launch and deployed in orbit to enable it to connect with unmodified 2G, 4G and 5G phones from hundreds of miles away.

At around 1,500-kilograms, BlueWalker 3 is a much smaller version of the company’s planned operational BlueBird satellites AST SpaceMobile is building in-house. Each BlueBird will have a mass “well north” of BlueWalker 3, Wisniewski said, and have a larger field of view.

BlueWalker 1, AST SpaceMobile’s first test satellite that was also built in-house, was launched in April 2019 to validate the company’s satellite-to-cellular architecture using the 4G-LTE wireless protocol. 

Getting operational

AST SpaceMobile signed a launch contract March 8 with SpaceX that includes a milestone payment for its first operational BlueBird satellite, slated to launch in the fourth quarter of this year, and a reservation for an additional BlueBird mission.

The agreement provides a framework that runs until the end of 2024 for ordering additional SpaceX launches, and permits AST SpaceMobile to delay launches after paying a rebooking fee.

AST SpaceMobile said it remains open to using other launch providers for deploying BlueBird satellites.

The company expects to have deployed 20 satellites by around the middle of July 2023 to provide initial services in an equatorial region comprising 49 countries and 1.6 billion people.

“We’re designing BlueBirds for compatibility with numerous large launch vehicles that could deploy multiple operational satellites into orbit,” Wisniewski said.

If this launch phase goes to plan, AST SpaceMobile aims to deploy another 90 satellites by the end of 2024 to “achieve substantial global mobile coverage.” 

Wisniewski said the company aims to launch another 58 satellites in 2025 to improve services by enabling Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MIMO) capabilities, a technology using multiple transmitters and receivers to transfer more data at the same time.

AST Space Mobile says its Texas manufacturing facilities are designed to assemble up to six BlueBird satellites per month at full capacity. 

Regulatory milestones

AST SpaceMobile has so far only secured market access licenses to provide commercial services in Nigeria and five other countries across Africa and Asia, covering a population of about 360 million.

“Despite it being early days on the regulatory front,” Wisniewski said the company and its mobile operator partners are actively working in the U.S. and other countries for permission to provide commercial services.

Globe Telecom, a mobile network operator in the Philippines, said April 28 it had become the latest company to sign a deal with AST SpaceMobile, and will explore using services for its 86 million wireless subscribers.

AST SpaceMobile’s applications for testing and commercial service in the Philippines are still in progress, Wisniewski said.

Texas-based AST SpaceMobile, one of several space companies to go public last year via SPAC mergers, said it has entered into similar partnerships with additional mobile network operators that collectively serve more than 1.8 million cellular customers. 

About 1 billion mobile subscribers are covered by preliminary agreements and understandings to set up revenue-sharing deals, AST SpaceMobile said in a March 31 financial update.

AST SpaceMobile had previously planned to launch BlueWalker 3 in 2021 and 20 BlueBird satellites by the end of 2022 to begin commercial services in 2023.

In a December 2020 investor presentation outlining plans for its SPAC merger, the company had projected $181 million in revenue for 2023 that would rise to more than $1 billion for 2024.

However, AST SpaceMobile currently expects to start generating “SpaceMobile Service” revenue from its constellation in 2024 following satellite manufacturing and launch delays.

“After we launch and deploy our [BlueBird] satellites during 2023, we may seek to generate revenue by providing a limited SpaceMobile Service in certain countries,” the company said in its March 31 update.

The limited SpaceMobile Service would not be available on a continuous basis, it added, and would be dependent on partnerships with mobile operators, regulatory approvals and other conditions.

Despite securing an experimental license for the United States from the FCC, it is still waiting for permission to provide commercial services here.

In addition to FCC approval for operating satellite spectrum, the company needs permission from the regulator’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau to use frequencies traditionally used by terrestrial mobile network operators.

Virginia-based Lynk Global is also waiting for a U.S. market access license for a constellation it is developing to provide connectivity to unmodified phones. 

Lynk Global has deployed six satellites to date. The company says its latest satellite, Lynk Tower 1 that launched as part of a SpaceX Falcon 9 ride-share mission April 1, is designed for operational services.

It has plans to deploy a total of 10 operational satellites over around 12 months for initial services that include text messaging and emergency alerts.  

Three more operational satellites under construction for a launch this year will enable the company to begin “global commercial service in 2022 with a dozen flagship operators,” Lynk Global said April 6 without providing details. 

The company did not respond to requests for comment.

Thousands of devices had successfully connected to its fifth demonstration satellite during pre-commercial tests, Lynk Global announced Feb. 8.

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