TAMPA, Florida – AST SpaceMobile secured an experimental license on May 2 to test US services from BlueWalker 3, the satellite prototype slated for launch this summer for its planned cellular-compatible broadband constellation.
The Federal Communications Commission license allows the company to connect unmodified cellular devices in Texas and Hawaii with BlueWalker 3 for several minutes per day.
SpaceX is expected to launch BlueWalker 3 into low Earth orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket with other passengers.
AST SpaceMobile said it has regulatory clearance for BlueWalker 3 to use cellular frequencies to connect to phones in the United States – and then spectrum in the Q and V bands to redirect traffic to ground gateways – with certain restrictions.
“The BlueWalker 3 satellite would give us approximately five minutes of coverage in most areas of the world each day, which we plan to use to configure our software and other systems related to the core of the network,” said Scott Wisniewski, chief strategy officer at AST SpaceMobile Space news.
“Such coverage should also provide an opportunity to explore numerous uses of cellular broadband, including messaging, voice and data applications.”
BlueWalker-3 has a 64-square-meter phased array antenna that will be stowed away for launch and deployed into orbit to allow it to connect with unmodified 2G, 4G, and 5G phones from hundreds of miles away.
Weighing around 1,500 kilograms, BlueWalker 3 is a much smaller version of the company’s planned operational BlueBird satellites that AST SpaceMobile is building in-house. Each BlueBird will have a mass “well north” than BlueWalker 3, Wisniewski said, and will have a wider field of view.
BlueWalker 1, AST SpaceMobile’s first test satellite, also built in-house, was launched in April 2019 to validate the company’s satellite-to-cellular architecture using the 4G-LTE wireless protocol.
AST SpaceMobile signed a launch contract on March 8 with SpaceX including a key payment for its first operational BlueBird satellite, scheduled to launch in the fourth quarter of this year, and a booking for an additional BlueBird mission.
The deal provides a framework that will last until the end of 2024 to order additional SpaceX launches and allows AST SpaceMobile to delay launches after paying a rebooking fee.
AST SpaceMobile has stated that it remains open to the use of other launch providers for the distribution of the BlueBird satellites.
The company expects to have deployed 20 satellites around mid-July 2023 to provide initial services in an equatorial region encompassing 49 countries and 1.6 billion people.
“We are designing BlueBirds for compatibility with a number of large launch vehicles that could field multiple operational satellites into orbit,” said Wisniewski.
If this launch phase goes according to plan, AST SpaceMobile aims to deploy an additional 90 satellites by the end of 2024 to “achieve substantial global mobile coverage”.
Wisniewski said the company aims to launch an additional 58 satellites in 2025 to improve services by enabling Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MIMO) capabilities, a technology that uses multiple transmitters and receivers to transfer more data at the same time.
AST Space Mobile says its Texas manufacturing facilities are designed to assemble up to six BlueBird satellites per month at full capacity.
So far AST SpaceMobile has obtained market access licenses only to provide commercial services in Nigeria and five other countries in Africa and Asia, covering a population of approximately 360 million.
“Despite being in its infancy on the regulatory front,” Wisniewski said the company and its mobile operator partners are actively working in the US and other countries to get permission to provide commercial services.
Globe Telecom, a mobile network operator in the Philippines, said on April 28 that it became the latest company to sign an agreement with AST SpaceMobile and that it will explore the use of the services for its 86 million wireless subscribers.
AST SpaceMobile’s applications for testing and commercial service in the Philippines are still ongoing, Wisniewski said.
Texas-based AST SpaceMobile, one of several publicly traded space companies last year via SPAC mergers, said it has entered into similar partnerships with additional mobile network operators that collectively serve more than 1.8 million cellular customers.
About 1 billion mobile subscribers are covered by preliminary agreements and arrangements to establish revenue sharing agreements, AST SpaceMobile said in a March 31 financial update.
AST SpaceMobile had previously planned to launch BlueWalker 3 in 2021 and 20 BlueBird satellites by the end of 2022 to begin commercial services in 2023.
In a December 2020 Investor Presentation Outlining plans for its SPAC merger, the company forecast revenue of $ 181 million for 2023 that would rise to more than $ 1 billion by 2024.
However, AST SpaceMobile currently plans to begin generating “SpaceMobile Service” revenue from its constellation in 2024 following satellite production and launch delays.
“After launching and distributing ours [BlueBird] satellites during 2023, we may seek to generate revenue by providing limited SpaceMobile service in some countries, ”the company said in its March 31 update.
The limited SpaceMobile service would not be available on an ongoing basis, he added, and would depend on partnerships with mobile operators, regulatory approvals, and other conditions.
Despite securing an experimental US license from the FCC, she is still awaiting permission to provide commercial services here.
In addition to FCC approval for satellite spectrum operation, the company needs clearance from the regulatory authority’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau to use frequencies traditionally used by terrestrial mobile network operators.
Virginia-based Lynk Global is also awaiting a US market access license for a constellation it is developing to provide connectivity to unmodified phones.
Lynk Global has deployed six satellites to date. The company says its latest satellite, Lynk Tower 1, was launched as part of a SpaceX Falcon 9 travel sharing mission April 1it is designed for operational services.
It plans to deploy a total of 10 operational satellites in approximately 12 months for initial services which include text messaging and distress alerts.
Three more operational satellites under construction for launch this year will allow the company to begin “global commercial service in 2022 with a dozen leading operators,” Lynk Global said on April 6 without giving details.
The company did not respond to requests for comment.
Thousands of devices had successfully connected to its fifth demonstration satellite during pre-commercial testing, Lynk Global announced on February 8.