SpaceMobile deal could kill all of AT&T’s dead zones
According to SpaceMobile, AT&T is putting the final touches on an agreement with the startup that could allow the operator to connect its customers’ existing phones directly to SpaceMobile’s satellites. If the service works as promised, the result could essentially eliminate all of AT&T’s 4G and 5G dead zones with the flip of a switch.
A partnership between AT&T and SpaceMobile has significant implications for the global wireless industry. First, given AT&T’s interest in the topic, it signals the technical possibility of connecting customers’ existing cellphones directly to low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. Due to spectrum regulations and technological limitations, standard cellphones today connect to cell towers located on the ground, which thus limits operators’ coverage to areas to only those locations where signals from those towers can reach. And while companies like Iridium and Globalstar do sell portable phones that can connect directly to their satellites, they do so using their own spectrum bands and their phones are often bulky and expensive.
SpaceMobile’s proposition would turn this whole situation on its head by beaming connections from satellites inside of wireless operators’ existing spectrum bands. The company said its agreement with AT&T would allow it to transmit signals in the operator’s AWS, PCS and WCS spectrum bands. Thus, AT&T’s customers wouldn’t have to purchase a new phone to connect to SpaceMobile’s satellites because SpaceMobile would be transmitting in the same spectrum bands that AT&T is already using.
But an agreement between AT&T and SpaceMobile has implications beyond just the operator’s dead zones. If phones like those from AT&T could connect to satellites, would that impact satellite providers like Iridium and Globalstar? And would it slow AT&T’s efforts to construct 4G and 5G networks in rural areas?
SpaceMobile certainly appears aware of these issues considering the company is petitioning the FCC to make its service eligible for the agency’s $9 billion 5G Fund. “The mobile-satellite-based enhancement would allow essential service to be provided where a financial case cannot be made, even with 5G Fund support, to deploy expensive terrestrial cell sites and backhaul facilities,” SpaceMobile wrote in a recent FCC filing. “This will alter the economic equation that has left behind these hardest to serve areas.”
SpaceMobile, the go-to-market brand from Midland, Texas-based startup AST & Science (AST), disclosed its pending partnership with AT&T in a recent FCC filing. “AST currently has a Teaming Agreement in place with AT&T and is finalizing a Memorandum of Understanding with AT&T that details and describes roles and responsibilities, commercial framework, and the frequencies that will be used by both the BlueWalker 3 test satellite and the commercial SpaceMobile constellation,” the company wrote earlier this month. “Currently, AST has an experimental license that permits the use of AT&T’s Band 5 spectrum for testing on its first test satellite, BlueWalker 1.”
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