ASTs satellite service connects directly to cell phones on carriers networks

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AST SpaceMobile was founded in 2017 by Abel Avellan, who is the company’s CEO. It has raised almost $600 million, and its investors include Rakuten, Vodafone, American Tower and Samsung. The Texas-based company has about 220 employees and a market cap of about $1.8 billion, according to its Chief Strategy Officer Scott Wisniewski.

The company launched its first satellite in March 2019. Wisniewski said this launch “gave us the proof that we could connect a satellite directly with a phone.”

He said the key thing that distinguishes AST from other satellite companies that are scrambling to offer broadband service is that AST’s technology “connects directly to the handset.” End customers do not have to buy any additional equipment, have any special infrastructure installed or buy any special smartphones.

Rakuten Mobile’s CTO Tareq Amin said on a recent call with media that AST’s technology is really unique because it “enables direct satellite to UE communication without any UE modification.”

Amin said AST’s technology basically “is taking base stations into sky.” He provided the below diagram.

In AST’s partnerships with Rakuten and Vodafone, those telcos will need to provide the spectrum and the backhaul capabilities on the ground.

AST is planning to launch a half-size satellite in the fourth quarter of this year to test its connection with the ground infrastructure of its telecom partners. Then, its roadmap calls for the launch of 20 satellites in earth’s equatorial region starting in 2023.

Amin said Rakuten loves the whole concept: “You take the existing macro base station that you had on earth, put it into the sky, and it’s like an orbiting massive platform delivering on licensed radio 3GPP spectrum.”

In terms of backhaul infrastructure on the ground, Wisniewski said, “You need antennas in the V-band and a gateway — one or more of those in a country — either co-located with a telco or at a neutral facility, which is part of our relationship with American Tower. V-band is a high frequency spectrum that we have some priority rights for under ITU.”