Abel Avellan wants to connect your mobile phone to space

In the not-so-distant future, Rakuten Mobile users could be connecting directly to space.

To coincide with the official reveal of Rakuten Mobile launch plans for April, Rakuten also announced its investment in space cellular broadband network startup AST & Science. The company is in the process of launching a revolutionary cellular network called SpaceMobile a constellation of low-Earth-orbit satellites that will bring connectivity directly to smartphones on the ground, without the need for special hardware or terrestrial base stations.

Rakuten Today sat down with AST & Science founder and CEO Abel Avellan to learn more about how the technology could revolutionize connectivity in the near future.

Let’s start with a bit of background. Where are you from and what do you do?

I’m originally from Venezuela but I’ve been in the U.S. for around 30 years, where I’m a citizen.

I’ve been in the satellite business all my life, basically! I’m an engineer, I love to build things. This is what I do — connect people around the world through satellites.

How did you begin your career?

I had the opportunity to work connecting embassies in Africa, installing antennas and setting up networks. It really exposed me to the continent, a place that’s now very close to me, a place that’s changed drastically over the years. It was a firsthand view of what happens when you connect a country to the internet, how that empowers people.

Then I went to Ericsson in Sweden where I was professionally trained in both business and engineering. Finally, I moved to the U.S., where I have been for the last 25 or 26 years.

I worked for many years in a company that specialized in providing connectivity over satellite. One day I realized that I wanted to do something by myself. I set up a company called EMC (Emerging Markets Communications), the focus of which was to connect people and things in remote locations all over the world. That was something that I bootstrapped from just $50,000. We ended up selling it for $550 million.

How was AST & Science born?

AST is my newest child. It was born from an idea to make satellite services something that truly form a daily part of your life. Just like how people today can’t live without GPS, how people get lost just going from their house to the supermarket. You use GPS every day — I wanted to do the same thing for telecommunications.

After I sold EMC, one of my scientists called me up one day about some experiments he was running and some ideas he had, and it was a lightbulb moment for me. We could use satellites in space to connect cell phones without requiring anything on the ground! I knew we had to do it.

When I started to realize how big that was, how transformative that would be for the telecommunications industry, I got fully back into the game. I started hiring back my team, did an acquisition of a small satellite manufacturer that is part of AST today, and started securing the patents.

I’ve been coming and going between the cellular operations industry and the satellite services industry for a long, long time. With this project, I’m merging the two. This is something that has never been done before — there is no system to directly connect regular phones to the internet through satellite. So that’s what we’re doing.

“The concept is really simple: Your phone should work anywhere, no matter what. “

How does SpaceMobile work?

The basic idea is that a regular device can connect directly to space without any infrastructure around it. The only thing that you need to connect is your device, as it is today. No need to change the phone, the hardware or the frequencies — nothing.

The concept is really simple: Your phone should work anywhere, no matter what. Technically, however, it’s extremely challenging. There’s a reason why it’s never been done. I’ve been in the industry for 25 years, and nobody has cracked the code before. There are a multitude of technological barriers to entry, and nobody wanted to put in the time or the effort.

It requires the willingness to think differently. The good news is that we have actually solved the issue. We launched Bluewalker 1 in April last year, and we have been demonstrating the technology since.

Does this eliminate the need for ground infrastructure?

We don’t see it exactly like that — it’s more about whether or not the infrastructure exists in the first place.

SpaceMobile is designed for places with a lower population density. This is not really meant to be the primary means of communication in downtown Tokyo, for example. Although it does have the ability to take over in highly populated areas during emergencies or special situations, so if the connectivity in Tokyo is lost for whatever reason, our network can take over. No matter what’s happening on the ground, our infrastructure is in space. Losing phone service for days or weeks or months after a natural disaster will be a thing of the past when we are in the air.

So we don’t see ourselves as a replacement for terrestrial infrastructure. Our business model is to partner with the operators, to extend their networks. Our services are complementary, not a replacement.

SpaceMobile was on full display at Rakuten Mobile’s March 3 press conference announcing the mobile carrier’s price plan and investment in AST & Science’s venture to provide space-based connectivity.

How could SpaceMobile help poorly connected rural areas?

It’s actually very simple. With a few hundred satellites, we can cover the entire planet. You basically light up every corner, every centimeter of the earth.

We use artificial intelligence and sophisticated virtualized systems to basically select and allocate spectrum power and resources depending on where the traffic is. This virtualization is actually one of the reasons we got involved with Rakuten, who are pioneering the technology.

It’s flexible and dynamic, unlike a tower. Take somewhere like Australia, for example. It’s impossible to cover the whole country with towers. When you make the decision to build a tower, you are married to that tower. You need to get people to use that tower. We don’t need that.

We consider connectivity to be a human right. My kids tell me that it’s as important to them as water and electricity! We’re totally compatible with 5G, 4G, 3G, 2G — even in the future when 6G comes, our architecture is completely agnostic. And it’s allowing us to bring all of this to very remote places faster than by any other means.

Does this mean you could connect from a ship in the middle of the ocean or on a plane mid-flight?

You can be anywhere, that’s the whole point. This is planned to work regardless of where you are, no matter what.

How does it work across borders?

By nature, satellite services cannot be localized. For us, it’s impossible to offer service only in Japan, for example, because satellites are always moving. We need to offer the service everywhere. It’s global by nature.

From the user side, it’s pretty simple. If you are flying over North America, you are probably connected to your North American partner. When you’re crossing the Pacific, you’ll be on AST directly, since that area doesn’t belong to anybody. When you approach Japan, you’re automatically switched to Rakuten Mobile.

How soon will we be connecting our phones to space?

We aren’t publishing service dates yet — that’s up to our partners! But I can say that it’s not more than a few years away. We are through the testing phase, through the design phase, we’re launching the first test satellites and making sure everything works.

Rakuten CEO Mickey Mikitani (left) greets Avellan on stage during the official reveal of Rakuten Mobile’s April expansion plans.

How did the partnership with Rakuten begin?

It was initially through [Rakuten Mobile CTO] Tareq [Amin]. I had a fascinating call with him about the innovation that Rakuten Mobile is bringing to bear with virtualization and how they are completely changing how the infrastructure gets built.

I explained to him what I was doing, and we immediately knew there was a partnership there. Soon after that, I met [Rakuten CEO] Mickey [Mikitani] and I think we both realized very quickly that this partnership is clearly worth making happen.

Right now we have raised $128 million with Rakuten leading the investment. We’re 100% focused on the technology, on building, tweaking and launching the first satellites.

Why did you choose to partner with Rakuten?

I really love Mickey’s philosophy of empowering others. I truly believe that our system will empower billions. We’re going to empower people out of poverty. They’ll have connectivity to their cell phones for the first time. In much of Africa, if you don’t have a phone, you don’t exist. You don’t have a bank account, people don’t even know that you are part of society!

I also love Mickey’s philosophy of leaders going first. I have the same philosophy — I love to do things that people are sometimes scared to do. What Rakuten Mobile is doing is a first, nobody has done it before. What we’re doing is something nobody has done before. It doesn’t matter that nobody has done it, leaders go first!

At the same time, Rakuten Mobile is exceptionally well-prepared to go overseas. It has a very strong brand, very strong capability, and is actually breaking into one of the most difficult cellular markets. If they can do that in Japan, I’m sure they can do it anywhere.

Interested in finding out more about Rakuten Mobile’s unique approach to redefining expectations for mobile services? Watch the archived video of the Rakuten Mobile press conference held on March 3, 2020:

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