‘Life-saving technology’: AST SpaceMobile CEO outlines capabilities of direct-to-smartphone LEO satellite service
[Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include clarifications about deployment timelines requested from AST SpaceMobile.]
First responders and emergency callers subscribing to U.S. carriers and other major service providers will have affordable access to broadband communications beyond the coverage footprint of 4G and 5G terrestrial networks via their normal smart devices in the next few years, thanks to connectivity from satellite company AST SpaceMobile.
AST SpaceMobile Chairman and CEO Abel Avellan (pictured above) said his Texas-based company—one that began trading on the Nasdaq market this week—has designed its unique low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite system to provide easy-to-use, affordable broadband connectivity to public-safety agencies and the people they protect.
“What we are doing is building satellites that allow direct connectivity to regular handsets, without requiring any modification of the handsets—either hardware, software or app,” Avellan said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications.
“What this capability basically means is that every phone has broadband access and can become a public-safety tool. You don’t need infrastructure on the ground to connect to our satellites—that’s the whole premise of what we do.”
This is welcome news to public-safety users, particularly in the wake of recent discouraging news about the development of Proximity Services (ProSe), which was established at the LTE standard for direct-mode communications when users were out of the coverage footprint of the terrestrial LTE network.
AST SpaceMobile plans to provide service to the southern portion of the U.S.—including Texas and Florida—and other parts of “Hurricane Alley” in late 2023, Avellan said. The company’s current satellite-launch schedule would provide global coverage in 2024, he said.
Whether consumers or public safety, end users would not subscribe directly to AST SpaceMobile, Avellan said. Instead, users’ access to AST SpaceMobile would be managed by their cellular provider. To date, AST SpaceMobile has disclosed seven cellular-carrier partners, including some of the biggest players in the business—AT&T, Vodafone, Telefonica, Telstra and Rakuten.
Through these carrier partners, AST SpaceMobile has access to about 1.3 billion subscribers “and we will be announcing more” deals with other carriers in the future, according to Avellan, who stressed that the company’s business model is not to compete with existing wireless carriers.
“We will continue to deploy our system as a complement to the telcos,” he said. “We basically [provide] the capability to connect the phones, regardless where the phone is located or whether there is tower working.”
These carriers ultimately will determine the pricing plan for AST SpaceMobile service, but Avellan emphasized that the goal is to ensure that it fits within the budgets of cash-strapped public-safety entities.
“That is very, very, very important for us,” Avellan said. “Our focus in building these satellites and launching them is going to allow this service to be very, very affordable.”
“In the United States, the telco will announce their pricing, but it will be a $5-per-month to a $25-per-month type of service. Also, people are going to have the chance to buy it ad hoc, where they can buy weekly plans or day passes when they need to get through [an area of bad coverage]. All of our cost structure is built to make this very affordable.”
This type of pricing is possible because technology advances have significantly reduced the cost of launching satellites and because AST SpaceMobile plans to serve a much larger user base than traditional satellite providers, which typically have a limited potential audience.
“This is different than the other [satellite] business plans, which are kind of niche plans,” Avellan said. “Our plan is have hundreds of millions of subscribers—through our partner telcos, not directly.”
While users like rural public-safety officers may know that they will need satellite access ahead of time and can configure an appropriate plan for using AST SpaceMobile, the service also will be available to users on an ad-hoc basis in manner that both simple and compelling.
“We don’t have a retail capability, so we don’t sell directly to the end users,” Avellan said.” We partner with the cellular operator. The cellular operator sends the user a text message when the user is out of [terrestrial cellular] coverage, and the user can say, ‘Yes, I want to be a user of SpaceMobile,’ and that’s it.
“I think we will be, in the future, an important aspect of what the telcos do. This opportunity is global, and we already have agreements with seven large telcos—agreements or memorandums of understanding to interconnect—that give us access to billions of people … We don’t believe you need to twist the arm of anybody to get access to a phone call or to the Internet, especially when they don’t have it.”
Avellan indicated that it is technically possible to connect certain types of communications—notably, an emergency call to 911 for help—automatically through the AST SpaceMobile satellite system when the user is outside of the cellular coverage footprint, but exactly how that would work would depend on the customer’s wireless provider.
“That’s something that we’re leaving up to the carrier,” Avellan said. “Right now, we’re concentrating on delivering the technology and enabling the transport mechanism, which is basically the satellites. Then, we are setting up in the U.S. carrier-neutral gateways located on American Tower locations—American Tower is one of our partners. Then the cellular operator will have the responsibility of configuring these things.”
But Avellan acknowledged the potentially important implications of his company’s technology in providing a method for people to call for help in an emergency from remote locations.
“Right now, we’re concentrating on enabling the transport, making sure that we have the satellites up and operating,” Avellan said. “But it is obvious that this is a life-saving technology, so just by virtue of having a system where—no matter where you are—you can connect your cell phone through text, through voice or through the Internet, it’s a life-saving technology.”
In addition to cellular carriers, other AST SpaceMobile strategic partners include American Tower and Samsung Next, the investment arm of the wireless-equipment giant, according to a slide presentation on the AST SpaceMobile investor-relations website.
Satellite-based solutions have long been a key communications tool throughout the critical-communications sector, particularly during response efforts to large natural or man-made disasters that have undermined terrestrial systems by damaging network infrastructure. Traditionally, most of these links have been made with geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO) satellites that are about 22,000 miles above the earth’s surface.
While acknowledging satellite’s usefulness, public-safety users have expressed concerns about the specialized equipment, setup/training time, latency associated with connecting to a GEO satellite, and the historically higher costs associated with satellite connectivity.
AST SpaceMobile has designed its LEO satellite system—with a constellation of satellites just 435 miles above the earth’s surface, as opposed to 22,000 miles for a GEO satellite—to address all of these pain points, according to Avellan.
At the heart of AST SpaceMobile’s value proposition is the fact that users will be able to connect to the company’s satellites directly with their existing smart devices, instead of being required to purchase various satellite antennas or specialized devices. This means that AST SpaceMobile satellites effectively act as cell towers in space, so they use cellular spectrum and cellular protocols, as opposed to traditional satellite spectrum and protocols, according to a company spokesperson.
This type of connectivity is possible because the satellites will be so much closer to earth than a GEO satellite and because of the size and power of the AST SpaceMobile satellites, which are much larger than the satellites being deployed by high-profile LEO providers like Elon Musk’s Starlink or OneWeb, Avellan said.
“There is no magic,” Avellan said. “You need size and you need power to connect to a phone, so our satellites are multi-ton—they are roughly the size of a pickup truck when we put them in the launchers, and then they deploy to a large phase array [antenna] that connect directly to a handset. So these are very, very different from the other type of satellites and constellations.”
“It’s math. You either have a very large satellite connected to a regular phone, or you have large satellite phone—with a large satellite-phone antenna—connecting to a smaller satellite.”
AST SpaceMobile’s satellites are even much bigger than the satellites deployed decades ago as part of the Iridium LEO constellation, he said.
“[Iridium has] a couple-of-hundred-kilogram satellites, and these are a couple-of-ton satellites,” Avellan said. “We are a very, very large phased array … basically, a large aperture flying relatively low.
“So, if you compare it to an antenna tower, typically their gain is 16 dBi. Our gains are north of 40 dBi—42, 43 or 46, depending on the scan angle. It’s math–it’s all about power and gain.”
In addition, AST SpaceMobile has the benefit of technology development that leverages more than a thousand patent claims, according to Avellan.
“[Satellite size is] part of the difference but not the only one that enables this,” he said. “It’s all of the software that we have to be able to connect to a regular phone. Regular phones are not built to connect to something that’s in space, moving very fast, and is far away—there is the delay and Doppler [effect], and we have all the technology to compensate for all of that, plus all of the technology to build this kind of spacecraft.”
All of these characteristics combine to allow AST SpaceMobile to deliver signals to smart devices with latency between 20 milliseconds and 40 milliseconds—a fraction of the latency associated with GEO-satellite communications and within the FCC’s definition of 5G, Avellan said.
In addition, these capabilities let AST SpaceMobile provide a certain level of indoor coverage—something many satellite offerings cannot do.
“Like in any wireless system, there are limitations, but this can offer service indoors—inside a car, inside a train, a few walls into a house,” Avellan said. “That’s one of the reasons we partner with cellular operators—they own premium cellular spectrum, so we get great penetration.
“So, this is not only for outdoor [service]. It will have the ability to connect indoors, with some limitations, like any wireless system would have.”
As with all wireless solutions, the data throughput experienced by a user of AST SpaceMobile service will vary, based on numerous factors, but it exceeds the cell-edge broadband requirements cited by public safety.
“[The data throughput rate] depends on many things,” Avellan said. “It depends on the number of satellites we have deployed, whether the user is outside or inside, the density of users, etc. In terms of the peak data rates for a cell, initially it will be around 120 mbps at the peak data rate. As we add more satellites, as we add MIMO and as we add more spectrum, we’ll be going up to around to 700 to 750 mbps per cellular cell.”
Avellan said that the size of the circular-shaped coverage cells vary, based on the cellular frequencies used.
“In the low bands, it’s around 40 kilometers [in diameter]; in the mid-band, around 24 [kilometers] and in the C-band—around 3.7 GHz—around 12 [kilometers],” he said.
AST SpaceMobile is able to direct more resources to targeted areas of activity—for instance, the site of a large-scale emergency—to provide greater bandwidth capacity where it is needed, Avellan said.
“We can dynamically move capacity,” Avellan said. “Basically it’s our all-software-based capability, where you can basically create the beams virtually.
“You typically light up the whole-field view and then allocate bandwidth and power—which is a finite resource on the spacecraft—to the area where there is traffic or where there is an emergency.”
While at least one other company claims to have technology that will support LEO satellites communicating directly with smartphones, AST SpaceMobile is the first to provide a timeline to offering a commercial service that leverages the capability—and it has more than $500 million in funding to make it happen, Avellan said.
AST SpaceMobile launched a test satellite in April 2019 under an AT&T experimental spectrum license, according to a company slide presentation. AST SpaceMobile will launch another test satellite this year, Avellan said. Beginning next year, the company expects to launch 15 to 20 production satellites at a time, until the constellation is completed with less than 200 satellites, he said.
“Our first batch of satellites are in the equatorial regions, around the equator,” Avellan said. “That’s planned for early 2023. In the U.S., we’re starting with the southern part of the United States, including Texas and Florida. So, we will get to what we call the ‘Hurricane Alley’ with the first 45 satellites.”
“We’re not disclosing a service date, as of yet. We’re letting our telco partners do that. But I can tell you that the first launch is 20 satellites in late 2022 for service in early 2023. And then, in 2023, we keep adding the next batch of satellites, which will get [our coverage] up to Florida, parts of Texas and the southern United States in 2023. In 2024, we plan to have global coverage.”