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September 20, 2023
AST SpaceMobile this week announced its latest satellite-based connectivity milestone, making 5G voice and data connections between a standard smartphone and a satellite.
It’s a world first, the company claims, which it might well be. Barely a week goes by without another ‘first’ or a new record being trumpeted by a handful of companies keen to capitalise on the opportunity of merging cellular technology with non-terrestrial alternatives. Equally, with the market very much in its infancy, the various players have been casting doubt on their rivals’ various claims, which keeps things interesting.
In this case, AST SpaceMobile disclosed that it had placed a call from Maui, Hawaii to a Vodafone engineer in Madrid using AT&T’s spectrum and its own BlueWalker 3 test satellite; that’s the largest-ever commercial communications array deployed in low-earth orbit (LEO), apparently, to continue the ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ theme. Company engineers placed the call earlier this month – 8 September, to be exact, which could be important if another company pops up with a rival claim – from an unmodified Samsung Galaxy S22 smartphone in a wireless dead zone, AST SpaceMobile said. Vodafone and Nokia also took part in the call.
In a separate test, AST SpaceMobile said it broke its own previous speed record for space-based cellular broadband, clocking up a download rate of approximately 14 Mbps. That compares with the 10 Mbps it hit in June.
The two new milestones come in the wake of AST SpaceMobile’s announcement back in April that it had completed the first ever space-based voice calls using normal smartphones.
It has, of course, come under scrutiny for that claim. In July Lynk, which is building an LEO constellation to create what it terms ‘cell towers in space,’ also claimed to have completed the world’s first voice calls over its network, the implication being it believed AST SpaceMobile was at best exaggerating its own achievements and at worst making them up entirely.
Lynk seemed to hang much of its claim on the fact that it had a video as proof, although opinions vary on how conclusive such a video could be. Nonetheless, it’s interesting that AST SpaceMobile has included a YouTube link of its own in its latest announcement.
Naturally, it didn’t make reference what others may or may not be doing. But it didn’t hold back on the hyperbole either.
“Once again, we have achieved a significant technological advancement that represents a paradigm shift in access to information. Since the launch of BlueWalker 3, we have achieved full compatibility with phones made by all major manufacturers and support for 2G, 4G LTE, and now 5G,” said AST SpaceMobile CEO Abel Avellan. It’s worth noting that BlueWalker 3 is a test satellite; AST Space Mobile plans to launch its first five commercial satellites in the first quarter of next year.
“Making the first successful 5G cellular broadband connections from space directly to mobile phones is yet another significant advancement in telecommunications AST SpaceMobile has pioneered,” Avellan declared. Vodafone, AT&T and Nokia also contributed – slightly less self-congratulatory – statements about their own roles in proceedings and the potential of the technology to connect the unconnected.
It’s hard to argue with that last point, which is part of the reason why satellite-based connectivity is having something of an extended moment in the spotlight, with AST SpaceMobile, Lynk, Sateliot and others talking up their various achievements.
AST SpaceMobile describes itself as “the company building the first and only space-based cellular broadband network accessible directly by standard mobile phones” though. Others would disagree.
Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.
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