Connecting mobile phones directly to satellite may not be far away.
Mobile direct-to-satellite service is preparing for another attempt and making possible a spacecraft the size of a small apartment. They signal the return of a distant dream for the wireless industry: service powered by satellites in orbit.
AST SpaceMobile Inc.’s BlueWalker 3 said: 10, and unfolds over an area of 693 square feet, the company said Monday. The vehicle is a test version of AST SpaceMobile’s planned constellation of 168 satellites to provide worldwide radio service.
“Everyone should have the right to access cellular broadband, no matter where they live or work,” said Abel Avillan, CEO of AST SpaceMobile, in a press release. “Our goal is to bridge the communication gaps that negatively affect the lives of billions of people around the world.” Shares of AST SpaceMobile jumped after the announcement before reversing gains, falling 2.1% at 11:29 a.m. in New York.
AST SpaceMobile’s partners include AT&T Inc. , which sees the potential for a simple way to connect customers in remote areas that lack cell coverage.
“We’re building a suite of services that look just like wireless services coming from a terrestrial network, only it’s a service from the satellite,” AT&T CEO John Stankey said in an interview with Bloomberg News before the satellite went live. “You don’t want to change anything about the phone. You want it to work the same way.”
Direct-to-satellite phone service was an often unfulfilled promise dating back to the 1990s. Now carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile US Inc. , which is teaming up with Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., is about to give it another chance.
In another strategy, Apple Inc. Its new iPhone 14 will be able to send basic SOS messages from places without normal cellular coverage, using satellites.
If these partnerships work, the next few years could see growth in the market first tested in 1998 when then-Vice President Al Gore made the first phone call using Iridium’s groundbreaking service. Iridium entered bankruptcy the following year, though it was quickly revived, as compact cellular phones outpaced their expensive services and bulky phones.
New services attract attention, alleviating suspicion.
“There has certainly been an acceleration and surge of activity” with regard to direct-to-satellite communications, said Tim Hatt, head of research and advisory at GSMA Intelligence, in part because newly approved standards for mobile equipment encourage satellite communications. The unit is part of the GSMA Industry Group of Telecom Service Providers.
The systems are still unproven, and direct communication with spacecraft over 100 miles is no easy feat for a small battery-powered smartphone.
“It’s very difficult to get a signal from a small mobile device into a satellite,” said analyst Peter Resavi. It’s possible, said Tim Farrar, a satellite industry analyst, “but you’re really limited about what performance you can expect.” This is something that will take some time to resolve. ”
Proponents of direct satellite communication see two opportunities. They plan to introduce coverage when the world’s estimated 5 billion cell phones move away from cellular coverage areas. And they expect to provide service in places where there is no cellular signal nearby at all, such as remote mountains or far out at sea. Industry-wide revenue for such connectivity could reach $30 billion by 2035, or about 3% of total industry revenue, according to the GSMA, the mobile industry body.
AT&T, which has been working on phone-to-satellite communications for three years, is sharing some of its airwaves with AST SpaceMobile for testing, and may offer a service in conjunction with the startup “to fill coverage gaps in remote and unconnected areas,” the company said in an emailed statement.
“The approach we’re using is a different kind of satellite,” Stankey said. “It has larger arrays and more antennas.”
AST SpaceMobile’s large, flat satellite is adorned with small antennas. Together, they are designed to form powerful rays that ordinary phones can detect, as well as help the satellite hear weak signals from the ground, according to a company video.
The company noticed potential competitors in the field of satellite phones. Among these companies is Lynk Global Inc. , which won US approval to launch 10 of its satellites and says they are connected to phones in Mongolia. Iridium Communications Inc. on the technology to “connect millions of consumer devices to our network,” CEO Matt Desch told investors in July. Omnispace, Virginia-based Tysons, says it has two satellites on top and plans for 5G networks.
“Competition is a sign that people see market opportunities and believe the technology is real and possible,” said Scott Wisniewski, chief strategy officer at AST SpaceMobile.
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