Is AST SpaceMobile the Next Big Thing in Global Connectivity?

Imagine you could use your existing unmodified smartphone to make calls, text, and access high-speed data and streaming video everywhere on Earth – even over oceans, deserts or the poles. That’s the incredibly ambitious vision AST SpaceMobile is turning into reality by linking satellites directly to billions of mobile devices without extra gear needed. In this guide, we’ll unpack how AST’s breakthrough “wireless tower in space” technology works, its vast market potential, and whether it might soon disrupt global telecom as an essential service enfranchising the final ~3 billion unconnected worldwide.

Overview – Connecting the Unconnected via Space

Founded in 2017, AST SpaceMobile’s mission is closing connectivity gaps globally by enabling standard mobile phones to connect to broadband satellites overhead. They achieve this unprecedented satellite-to-device linkage using sophisticated directional antenna arrays mounted on low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites. These space-based “cellular towers” link directly with ordinary 3G/4G/5G cell phones far below using AST’s patented technology.

Unlike other satellite internet providers, no dish install, WiFi hotspot or hardware upgrade is necessary – the satellites connect seamlessly to mobile subscribers’ existing smartphones with no modifications required. By supplementing connectivity in areas lacking terrestrial infrastructure, AST SpaceMobile aims to finally connect remote populations and vehicles lacking consistent access today.

After successful testing on its prototype BlueWalker 3 satellite launched last September, AST SpaceMobile now plans to begin deploying operational satellites in partnership with SpaceX in mid-2023. Over 5 years, they intend to launch over 200 satellites to enable global roaming coverage directly accessible by over 1.8 billion smartphones worldwide.

So with its uniquely direct-to-device connectivity now proven via space, massive target market, key partnerships secured, and commercial rollout upcoming, AST seems poised to profoundly expand global mobile broadband in just a few years. Let’s analyze their breakthrough technology, vast market opportunity, and future potential for impact.

The Wireless Tower In Space – How It Works

Other satellite internet providers rely on using small directional user antennas on the ground to link up with signals from space. But AST SpaceMobile ships the antenna into orbit instead – packing them onto satellites with expansive, directional phased arrays able to precisely focus signals onto regions far below.

"We essentially put a cellular tower in space. We take the antenna, and instead of needing an antenna on the ground looking up, we…have a very large antenna in space looking down," explained AST SpaceMobile CEO Abel Avellan.

By using advanced beamforming and signal processing, AST satellites essentially mimic cell towers – transmitting and receiving 4G/5G cellular signals from unmodified smartphones far below. To enable roaming connectivity from LEO orbit over 500 km high, the satellites feature:

  • Large-scale antennas: BlueWalker 3 contains a 693 square foot phased array with 49 x 49 elements for precise beamforming to phones below. The operational BlueBird satellites starting rollout in 2023 will have even larger antennas exceeding 1,400 ft2.
  • Rapid beam steering: Swift redirection of focused beams allows the satellites to maintain connections to devices as they rapidly traverse ground miles below. The satellites seamlessly transmit and receive signals across assigned 3GPP mobile spectrum bands.
  • Optical links between satellites: High-speed free space lasers interconnect orbiting satellites to minimize latency as beam-forming signals get routed from space down to the nearest mobile phone. This space networking enables low-lag roaming connectivity.
  • Patented metamaterials lens: AST patented a unique metastructure lens design allowing very low-profile, lightweight antennas (~1 inch thick) while maintaining high aperture efficiency. This breakthrough helped enable such large yet slim antenna arrays aboard their LEO satellites.

In testing conducted in 2022 using the BlueWalker 3 test satellite launched last September, AST SpaceMobile demonstrated the first-ever direct mobile handset calls made using a satellite equipped with large phased-array antennas and back-end cellular infrastructure. They achieved 2G to 4G data rates and 30ms to 40ms latencies similar to terrestrial networks.

So by pioneering space-based router-like functionality supporting ordinary mobile spectrum, AST Satellites essentially act as cell towers above transferring cellular signals across the 600 km air gap down to unmodified smartphones below. This breakthrough connectivity architecture could soon support billions of additional devices.

Large Underconnected Population Represents Massive Market

AST SpaceMobile shrewdly aims to connect the ~3 billion individuals globally still lacking reliable mobile broadband, especially in rural and remote areas. Providing satellite-boosted cellular service allows users seamless access leveraging devices they already own and wireless plans they already use daily.

AST isn’t trying to sell dedicated satellite dishes and terminals like Starlink. Instead they simply expand the reach of terrestrial cellular providers (like AT&T) via space. By partnering with mobile carriers, they also cleverly leverage those companies’ existing subscribers.

For example, even if AST SpaceMobile directly enrolled only 200 million mobile subscribers itself, their partners AT&T and Reliance Jio each have hundreds of millions more subscribers whose phones could potentially connect to the AST Low Earth Orbit satellite network, Abel Avellan pointed out in an interview with Via Satellite magazine.

BySupplementary Analysis making mobile calls and internet seamlessly work in more places via supplemental satellites, AST taps into a huge market of subscribers wanting better coverage with their current smartphone plan.

And with mobile penetration continuing to rapidly rise – by 2025 over 5 billion smartphones are forecast globally – AST SpaceMobile is poised to enable connectivity for the final wave of unconnected populations, no matter how remote.

Technical Milestones Build Confidence

Given the immense complexities of launching and networking global fleets of extraordinarily advanced satellites, many tech observers wanted proof AST SpaceMobile’s bold vision could work before wholeheartedly backing them.

The company resoundingly passed that credibility test last year with their pioneering BlueWalker 3 test satellite launched in September 2022. Conducting the first-ever voice calls and data sessions linking satellites directly to unmodified mobile phones from space proved AST’s breakthrough antenna technologies and platform worked.

The extensive testing helped validate AST’s core patent portfolio and de-risk their approach as they scale up the technology starting mid-2023. Some notable results per AST’s documentation:

  • Sustained 2G to 4G speeds connecting standard mobile phones directly to BlueWalker 3 satellite
  • Consistently low 30 – 40 millisecond latency similar to terrestrial cellular performance
  • Successful video calls, SMS texts, email support over 6 GHz spectrum bands
  • Effective beam steering maintaining calls as satellite traversed ground miles below
  • Seamless transitions between satellite and terrestrial networks

By proving their space antennas act effectively as cell towers 500km straight overhead, AST built crucial confidence with partners and investors they can deliver global broadband uniquely from satellites.

Partnerships Set Stage for Industry Disruption

Given the formidable barriers even for seasoned space and telecom players in deploying globe-girdling LEO broadband constellations, AST SpaceMobile has smartly lined up key partnerships with mobile and launch partners:

  • AT&T agreement: DEAL allows AT&T and AST SpaceMobile to support each others’ customers with seamless satellite-terrestrial roaming worldwide. With 170+ million subscribers today potentially leveraging AST satellites soon for expanded connectivity, this represents a massive built-in customer base.

  • Launch contracts with SpaceX: AST will launch multiple operational BlueBird satellites on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets starting in 2023. Leveraging SpaceX’s swiftly reusable launch capability accelerates AST’s network deployment timeline.

  • Multi-launch deal with Nokia: Nokia will manufacture and integrate AST SpaceMobile modems into next-gen mobile devices to maximize their compatibility. This helps ensure wide adoption once service initiates.

These end-to-end pacts spanning launch, devices, and network coverage prime the pump for users worldwide to access AST SpaceMobile satellite bandwidth as easily as terrestrial cellular once commercially available.

Race Against Formidable Competitors

Despite extensive testing and partnerships now solidifying AST SpaceMobile’s viability, major players aim to compete fiercely for the massively lucrative global connectivity market they’re targeting.

Here are some top actual and potential challengers moving aggressively alongside AST to expand mobile broadband reach using a mix of ground and space infrastructure globally:

CompanyConnectivity ApproachUser Population
SpaceX StarlinkSatellite terminals/WiFi hotspots>500,000
T-Mobile/SpaceXSatellite backhaul for cellular~260 million mobile subscribers
Verizon WirelessTerrestrial 5G and mobile edge compute~140 million mobile subscribers
DISH NetworkTerrestrial 5G network under development~8.4 million pay TV subscribers

In particular, the surprise T-Mobile/SpaceX joint venture announced in mid-2022 directly takes aim at AST SpaceMobile’s target market. By linking SpaceX satellites to T-Mobile phones, the partners could leapfrog AST’s rollout timeline given their collective scale and prior infrastructure.

AST maintains even hundreds of millions of subscribers leaves billions more yet unconnected for them to serve. But moving swiftly is critical as the window for ubiquity before other global networks harden may be narrow.

Bull vs. Bear Case on Prospects

Given fierce competition, complex technical hurdles executing sophisticated satellite launches reliably at scale, and a literally sky-high valuation exceeding $2B, is AST SpaceMobile headed for greatness or likely to crash back down to earth?

The bull case is that AST’s enormous early testing success, patented breakthrough connectivity technology not easily replicated, expansive TAM of billions more mobile users yet unconnected, and partnerships across the orbital IoT stack position them to define global communications for the 2030s-2040s. Just as 4G/5G blanketed the world in 10 years, space-based infrastructure could supplement connectivity even faster with AST potentially emerging a de-facto standard.

The bear case is that despite achievements, literal miles of technical hurdles remain translating prototype demos into flawless global commercialization. Competitors like SpaceX and wireless giants have financial muscle and wireless expertise that outmatches AST’s still mostly unproven team. As satellite bandwidth proliferates from SpaceX and others, smartphone and wireless plan integration emerges as the main route for ubiquity – an area startups tend to flounder.

Yet AST’s patient assembly of all the complex technology components required from antenna arrays to space lasers to smoothly interfacing with terrestrial infrastructure remains highly compelling. If executed competently, their breakthrough formula of satellite networks designed uniquely for mobile users could make them the broadband provider to the stars in the 2030s and beyond.

Final Assessment – Tech Game-Changer If Key Milestones Stay on Track

Given AST SpaceMobile’s enormous early progress unlocking direct mobile connectivity from space, we share the enthusiasm of many telecom analysts that this visionary firm is positioned for transformational impact. As smartphones reach nearly every human on Earth over the next decade, AST’s communications architecture could emerge as the missing puzzle piece to finally connect remote populations reliably and affordably.

By tackling global communications via a creative clean-sheet approach melding software-defined satellites with the ubiquitous devices we increasingly can’t live without, AST sits at the intersection of two fast-growing markets with essentially unlimited addressable demand for the coming generation.

To fulfill their considerable potential as both a business and public good enabling the entirely world’s information access, constant vigilance preparing for competitive and execution risk remains paramount. But with confident progress demonstrated already, essential partnerships in place, AST appears uniquely ready to breach the final frontier of connecting the unconnected when their satellites launch to commercial scale within the next few years. Buckle up!

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