Satellite Company, Tower Company Find Common Mission: Cellular Connectivity

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Cell phones and satellites have always seemed like polar opposites. One terrestrial and the other, well, extraterrestrial. AST SpaceMobile, Inc., is out to change that, building a space-based cellular broadband network accessible directly by standard mobile phones. AST SpaceMobile, in partnership with Vodafone Group, has plans to launch the first phase of its space-based commercial mobile communications service in 2023, which will connect directly to 4G and 5G smartphones without any need for specialized hardware.

“Today, more than five billion mobile subscribers constantly move in and out of wireless coverage, and AST SpaceMobile’s solution will fill these coverage gaps to enable people to stay connected while on the move,” the company said.

A very down to earth company, American Tower, which operates 186,000 towers firmly planted in the ground in 22 markets, has bought into AST Spacemobile’s dream, and Ed Knapp, Chief Technology Officer at American Tower, now serves on its Board of Directors. 

Knapp met Abel Avellan, chairman and CEO of AST SpaceMobile, in 2019, and quickly realized that his vision was very similar to the goal of American Tower.

“We’re trying to find ways to build out a terrestrial network that extends connectivity to many parts of the world terrestrially, and he had a vision of being able to do that efficiently from a satellite system,” Knapp said.

After several satisfying conversations on how AST SpaceMobile planned to build a satellite to connect directly to a mobile phone, American Tower invested in the company. 

“As an infrastructure partner we can help them reach that mission and that vision together,” Knapp said. “Today, we’re trying to build towers all around the world in areas that, frankly, are challenging. If we’re able to extend those towers, along with a satellite solution to provide continuous connectivity, that really helps our joint operator partners.” 

AST SpaceMobile and American Tower share a common customer base, as well as a common cause to provide it with connectivity.

“The infrastructure that we build out terrestrially is also connected to the types of infrastructure that AST SpaceMobile needs to build for terrestrial gateways,” Knapp said. “Demand for data and voice communications isn’t being satisfied. By extending AST SpaceMobile’s coverage, combined with the terrestrial coverage and the establishment of gateways and data centers, we think we can have a high performance wireless solution for the world.”

Knapp plans on using traffic on the satellites as a barometer to show which areas on the earth have the most cell phone traffic, which is not being served by terrestrial means. “The satellite, itself, will tell us where demand is, and we can then fill in to provide additional capacity,” Knapp said.

Further, Knapp describes a network where handoffs happen between the cell tower and the satellite, automatically, depending on which has the strongest signal. 

AST Mobile’s satellites can serve as a backup network in the event of a natural disaster that takes out the terrestrial cell towers. 

“American Tower faces challenges in different parts of the world on a regular basis from weather related events from other natural disasters, or even from cybersecurity attacks. If sites go out and off the air, we do our best to get them back on as quickly as possible,” Knapp said. “A system like AST SpaceMobile could provide a temporary relief to those areas where connectivity is fundamentally required in order to be able to restore service to consumers, business and, potentially, the government.”

Subject to regulatory approval, AST SpaceMobile aims to provide mobile network coverage for the 49 largest countries in the equatorial regions – including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ghana, Mozambique, Kenya, and Tanzania. AST SpaceMobile will also apply for regulatory approval to launch the service in India.The first tranche of AST SpaceMobile’s launch plans will involve the use of 20 satellites. 

AST SpaceMobile has signed an agreement with a carrier in the Philippines, Smart Communications, to provide cellular broadband network coverage to approximately 70 million Smart subscribers.

The Midland, TX-based company announced last week the opening of its United Kingdom headquarters in a multimillion dollar research and innovation complex. In addition to the UK, the company operates from other locations including an 85,000 square-foot satellite assembly, integrating and testing facility in Midland, TX, as well as operations in College Park, MD, Spain and Israel.

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