Even as 5G mobile networks are gaining subscribers around the world, billions of people remain offline. About four billion people, just over half the global population were online in 2019, according to an ITU study — meaning 3.7 billion were not connected to the internet. AST SpaceMobile has a bold plan to help fix this digital divide: connect cellular phones to the web using satellites.
Connecting the unconnected
“This is the only space-based cellular broadband network that is designed to connect directly to regular handsets without requiring any special frequency, chipset, service, app, anything,” Abel Avellan, chairman, founder and chief executive officer of AST SpaceMobile, said during a session on connectivity at Rakuten Optimism 2021. “All you need is your phone. AST SpaceMobile is designed to provide broadband connectivity regardless of where the person is located, regardless of the phone.”
“This is the only space-based cellular broadband network that is designed to connect directly to regular handsets without requiring any special frequency, chipset, service, app, anything.”Abel Avellan, Chairman, Founder, Chief Executive Officer, AST SpaceMobile
In a conversation with Avellan, Nobuyuki Uchida, executive officer, division manager, technology, strategy & compliance division at Rakuten Mobile, noted that digitalization is a key theme of Rakuten Optimism 2021, and a fundamental part of that is connectivity. With half the world facing barriers to getting online, the transformational power of digitalization may struggle to meet its full potential without an innovative solution like AST SpaceMobile.
“We’re motivated by the opportunity to change the world, first and foremost, and the opportunity to tap into a large addressable market,” said Avellan, a veteran of the satellite industry. “We have approximately three-quarters of a billion people without any connectivity and half the world’s population without internet on the phone. That’s a big opportunity, and when you add the ability to save lives and respond to emergencies and offer a service anytime without ground infrastructure to connect to phones — that’s our motivation.”
“We are in a mission here, to connect everyone regardless of where they are.”Abel Avellan
A new era for ‘satellite’ phones
The first satellite phone calls began nearly 60 years ago, but their use has been limited by large, expensive handsets and other infrastructure. Avellan established AST SpaceMobile with the intent to dramatically expand space-based cellular broadband coverage through a network of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites that intend to act as relays to ground stations run by cellular operators.
Orbiting at around 690 km above Earth and circling the planet every 90 minutes, the satellites are designed to provide high-speed, near real-time communication in 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G. The network plans to offer the possibility of connecting just about anywhere — remote areas, on flights or at sea — when regular, ground-based cellular service is too weak or not available.
AST SpaceMobile..anticipates the launch of its next prototype spacecraft, BlueWalker 3, from Cape Canaveral in 2022.
AST SpaceMobile has filed more than 1,200 patent and patent-pending claims in the development of its technologies. The company aims to launch its unique operational satellites, called BlueBirds, in a compact configuration, then unfurl their arrays in space like a flower. Once completely deployed, the spacecraft would be expansive enough to communicate with standard cellular devices on the ground, yet orbit the planet with a thin profile like a dinnerplate. Each BlueBird is designed to cover areas on Earth, using many phased array panels to connect millions of mobile devices on the surface to terrestrial telecommunications and internet infrastructure. The company’s headquarters and Space Manufacturing Facility in Midland, Texas, is built to produce modular components of the constellation using consumer electronics manufacturing techniques, yet adapted for space hardware.
The technology was only one part of their solution.
“We needed to innovate greatly and partner with companies like Rakuten that, obviously, are not afraid of being first,” said Avellan. “For us, it was inspirational to see Rakuten thinking of how to virtualize its network, do it for the first time, and do it for the whole country of Japan — one of the most advanced and most connected countries on the planet, in a very mature market.”
Avellan added: “All of that is what made us focused in our technology and how we make sure this is sustainable technology for the next decades. We really want this cellular broadband from space to be basically available for people in Africa, South America, some places in Asia…and in countries where the expectation is to have 5G connectivity regardless of where you are.”
AST SpaceMobile is now ready for its next step. In April 2021, the company made its debut on NASDAQ. AST SpaceMobile also aims to ramp up production to six BlueBird satellites per month, and anticipates the launch of its next prototype spacecraft, BlueWalker 3, from Cape Canaveral in 2022. The era of space-based broadband is getting closer and closer.
“At the beginning, we think people will be surprised to get our service, but in the future, we think they will demand it. Broadband connectivity is a human right. It’s a need of people that is undeniable, the effect on economic productivity,” said Avellan. “We are in a mission here, to connect everyone regardless of where they are.”
To view Abel Avellan and Nobuyuki Uchida’s session from Rakuten Optimism 2021, click here.