AST Spacemobile (AST) and AT&T just completed the first call between a regular smartphones using just the electronics and antennas that are common for decades in mobile devices using a satellite as the cell site. AST has talked about its technology for years, laid out its plans to investors and received only the scantest of interests. Unlike Apple’s technology that uses special chips in Apple’s new iPhone 14 smartphones to send text messages through a satellite connection the AST solution works with any phone. While T-Mobile and SpaceX’s announcement last year of bringing satellite connectivity to any phone was a vision statement, AT&T and AST’s call was the proof of concept. We know now that it works not only on paper but also in the field.
The first part of the feasibility study was the reverse of the actual proof of concept. AST put a cell phone on a satellite and built a base station on the ground. With this ingenious way, AST could exactly dimension the size of the antennas, the strength of the signal amplifiers, processing power requirements and the power consumption that the satellite would have in order to work in space and make the connections to smartphones from there. It is much easier to tinker with and faster to interate the hardware when it is on the ground than hundreds of miles in space.
The hard work begins now. Until now, the FCC has been a lot less accommodating to AST than the other innovative satellite providers. The FCC needs to allow AST to use regular terrestrial frequencies that have been exclusive to mobile service also for satellite service. Historically, the FCC has been very accommodating to satellite providers like Lightsquared to use their satellite frequencies for terrestrial communications, but this resulted in basically no usage for several reasons. The satellite to mobile spectrum conversion players forgot for the longest time to include their spectrum in mobile standards. If you are not in the standard, nobody will build devices that have your band in them. The next hurdle is to get devices that include a band that nobody is yet using for mobile communications as it costs money to include a new frequency band. This problem does not exist with the AST solution as all devices that have a cellular connection can connect to the satellite. What is needed from the FCC to move from a proof of concept to mass adopted reality is the permission to use regular cellular frequencies with satellites and the permission for AST to launch enough satellites. Then AST has to raise more money to build and launch the satellites.
Where AST and AT&T differentiate themselves is the data throughput they promise: Speeds of up to 50 Mbit/s and the ability for streaming video. While this is certainly handy when fighting wild fires in a remote part of a state or recovering victims from a plane crash in a remote part of the state, it becomes down right indispensable for people documenting on a live stream when they have climbed a mountain and then call first responders because they are too tired to climb back down.
While initially mentioned that the smartphone to satellite connections would be used just for FirstNet, it is almost inconceivable to stay restricted to first responders. The ability to eliminate outdoor dead spots and to provide full geographic coverage is huge. Based on our Recon Analytics Mobile Pulse data the ability to “make a calls anywhere” is the third most important purchase decision factor based on 161,976 respondents. From May 2022 to end of March 2023, 10.9% of respondents ranked it their most important decision factor choosing a mobile provider, 10.5% chose it number 2 and 10.9% as their third most important factor.
AT&T has a very promising solution on its hand. Bring ubiquitous outdoor coverage to first responders everywhere in the United States, something that has not been done before. But not only with text messaging with a long time delay like Apple does now and got a lot of accolades for, but with streaming video. This is a real game changer for first responders. It is also a game changer for consumers in areas with low signal strength or coverage holes outdoors. With AST’s technology they are gone. Consumers will still have to content with issues when being indoors as they do not have direct line of sight to the satellite and the buildings they are in are potentially interfering with the signal.
Now that we know this is possible, how quickly will regulators pull out all the stop signs that are preventing the real world application for it? How quickly can these satellite get into space and who will be the first to deliver ubiquitous outdoor coverage to first responders and consumers with what real world speeds?