AST SpaceMobile heads to Saudi Arabia

Zain Saudi Arabia has become the latest in a growing list of telcos keen to test out AST SpaceMobile's LEO satellite service.

Nick Wood

February 10, 2023

3 Min Read
Communication network above Earth for global business and finance digital exchange. Internet of things (IoT), blockchain,
Communication network above Earth for global business and finance digital exchange. Internet of things (IoT), blockchain, smart connected cities, futuristic technology concept. Satellite view.

Zain Saudi Arabia has become the latest in a growing list of telcos keen to test out AST SpaceMobile’s LEO satellite service.

The two companies on Thursday signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding (MoU), under which they plan to collaborate on new satellite-based digital services and telecoms solutions. Like a lot of other telcos, Zain is also keen to explore the potential of low-Earth orbit satellites for extending coverage to remote locations.

“We are confident that our collaboration with AST SpaceMobile could help to potentially provide space-based cellular broadband connectivity in the Kingdom, particularly in remote areas,” said Zain Saudi Arabia CTO Abdulrahman Al-Mufadda, in a statement. “In doing that, we reaffirm our commitment to ensuring that every citizen and resident in this precious land is connected wherever they may be.”

It comes just a day after SpaceMobile signed a similar MoU with TIM Brazil. Under this agreement, tests of 4G voice and data services will take place initially in the North and Northeastern regions of the country during the first half of this year.

“The MoU with AST SpaceMobile complements important ongoing initiatives to promote more digital inclusion, as it may help position TIM to take 4G to isolated areas, districts, villages, roads, resorts and tourist spots that are currently not served by other operators,” said Marco Di Costanzo, director of network development at TIM Brazil, in a separate statement.

SpaceMobile also has similar agreements with Rakuten in Japan, Smart Communications in the Philippines, as well as Vodafone and AT&T.

“AST SpaceMobile’s mission is to eliminate the connectivity gaps faced by today’s five billion mobile subscribers moving in and out of coverage zones, and bring cellular broadband to approximately half of the world’s population who remain unconnected,” said SpaceMobile.

It is one of a growing number of satellite service providers that promises to offer cellular connectivity directly between satellites and unmodified handsets. Lynk is another one, and SpaceX’s LEO arm Starlink has also begun working with T-Mobile US on direct-satellite-to-phone connectivity.

Whether the addressable market is large enough, and even wealthy enough, to support all these players is an open question. Generally speaking, the population that lives beyond the reach of terrestrial connectivity occupy the poorer end of the income spectrum, so LEO services targeted at these demographics must be affordable.

Furthermore, the proportion of customers who routinely find themselves beyond terrestrial network range – but still need to use their smartphone – can often be found on ships, aircraft, offshore platforms, quarries, mines and so-on. All of these are large enough to provide some sort of local area network – be it Wi-Fi or private cellular – and then rely on a geo satellite uplink for the connection back to the wider world. There is of course an emergency services use case, but one would hope that the use for this purpose would be sporadic rather than routine.

This leads to the question of who is going to use direct-satellite-to-phone connectivity, and are they going to use it regularly enough – and pay a sufficiently big enough subscription fee – to actually support these operators?


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About the Author(s)

Nick Wood

Nick is a freelancer who has covered the global telecoms industry for more than 15 years. Areas of expertise include operator strategies; M&As; and emerging technologies, among others. As a freelancer, Nick has contributed news and features for many well-known industry publications. Before that, he wrote daily news and regular features as deputy editor of Total Telecom. He has a first-class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster.

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