Abel Avellan Chairman, founder and Chief Executive Officer, AST SpaceMobile
At AST SpaceMobile, we don’t just believe in a brighter future, we are working hard to deliver one — to as many people as possible — from space.
It’s a topic I look forward to discussing with Rakuten Mobile’s Nobuyuki Uchida at Rakuten Optimism 2021 on October 13. The session, titled Connecting the Unconnected: Achieving 100% Coverage from Space, will explore how AST SpaceMobile and Rakuten are collaborating to transform mobile communications and reduce digital inequality in the process.
A space-based cellular network for everyone, everywhere
Each day, more essential resources and systems migrate onto our smartphones, ranging from education and work to healthcare and public safety. These ongoing advancements boost economies, improve quality of life and save lives.
Despite these digital advancements, and over five billion mobile devices in usage, connectivity is imperfect and people move in and out of cellular broadband coverage as they live, work and travel. What’s more, about half of humanity lacks cellular broadband service, either because people fall into a “coverage gap,” where there’s no connectivity at all, or a “usage gap,” where affordability and other factors create barriers to getting online.
To help close both gaps and connect the unconnected all over the world, we are developing the world’s first space-based cellular broadband network. It will be accessible by unmodified, standard mobile phones, so there will be no need for any app, expensive satellite dish, or custom hardware. SpaceMobile is designed to allow end users to connect using the device they already have in their pocket.
Tackling digital disparities
The key to making our satellite network function is not only our extensive IP portfolio — more than 1,200 patent and patent-pending claims and growing — but also our partners. We’re working side-by-side with Rakuten, in addition to other innovative telecommunications companies like Vodafone and American Tower, to develop a network for cellular access to billions of people spread across vast regions, including Africa, India and Indonesia. Additionally, we have entered into agreements and understandings with mobile network operators around the world, collectively covering approximately 1.5 billion cellular subscribers.
Consider that in Sub-Saharan Africa, which comprises an area of 9.2 million square miles — more than twice as large as the United States — around 46% of people have a mobile subscription. For a population of 1.14 billion, this means more than 600 million people in the region lack access to an array of digital platforms that deliver meaningful benefits, spanning medical and healthcare services, learning and training, and participation in commerce and global trade.
Such problems are not confined to developing nations and emerging markets, though. Countries with more robust infrastructure, including the U.S. and Japan, are also deeply affected by a lack of cellular broadband. Key geographic regions of developed nations lack coverage, leading to digital disparities. In Japan, for instance, it is very difficult and costly to provide cellular service to rural and mountainous regions. This leaves many families without access to amenities that the rest of the nation finds essential.
SpaceMobile stands to accelerate our customers’ efforts to resolve serious issues exacerbated by lack of connectivity. We plan to begin initial service after launching our BlueBird production satellites, then expand SpaceMobile to the rest of the globe with a total of 168 satellites. By leveraging our flexible wholesale model, we believe our mobile network operator customers could dramatically expand mobile service and help close both coverage and usage gaps — ensuring anyone can get connected and whole societies can take advantage of viable paths for meaningful advancement.
Democratizing mobile connectivity globally: An optimistic outlook.
Our network might also play a pivotal role in democratizing mobile connectivity globally and help billions realize the benefits of a connected society. Democratizing mobile connectivity could potentially enhance collaborations like the one Rakuten has with Asia Africa Investment & Consulting Pte. Ltd. (AAIC), a group that supports African startups poised to deliver innovative solutions that help local economies to more quickly and efficiently pursue higher stages of development. For example, there’s an ambulance app in Nairobi that uses GPS to determine the fastest route to respond to an emergency call; blood ordering software in Nigeria aims to alleviate chronic blood shortages for hospitals; and a digital healthcare platform that aims to de-stigmatize mental illness across Africa and encourage treatment.
More broadly, the implications of opening up access to telemedicine and delivering information about treating sickness and disease has the potential to save untold numbers of lives. Billions of unconnected people could also more fully participate in global society in ways that weren’t possible before, and the convenience to those who already enjoy the benefits of cellular broadband would allow them more complete utilization.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has said that “broadband has gone from being a luxury to a necessity for full participation in our economy and society.” We couldn’t agree more, which is why we’re working hard every day to realize a space-based cellular network for everyone, everywhere.
About Rakuten Optimism: On October 12 and 13, Rakuten Optimism 2021 will connect participants from Japan and around the world with some of the world’s top luminaries and business leaders to reflect on the myriad ways in which the world is changing around us, and how our lives can be enriched as a result. Register from free for Rakuten’s biggest-ever virtual business conference today: https://optimism.rakuten.co.jp/en/