TAMPA, Fla. — AST SpaceMobile obtained an experimental license on May 2 to test services in the United States from BlueWalker 3, the prototype satellite scheduled to launch this summer for its planned cell phone-compatible broadband constellation.
The Federal Communications Commission license allows the company to connect unmodified mobile devices in Texas and Hawaii with the BlueWalker 3 for several minutes per day.
SpaceX is scheduled to launch BlueWalker 3 into low Earth orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket with other passengers.
AST SpaceMobile said it has regulatory permission for BlueWalker 3 to use cellular frequencies to connect to phones in the US, and then spectrum in Q and V bands to direct traffic back to gateways on the ground, under certain restrictions. .
“The BlueWalker 3 satellite would give us about five minutes of coverage in most areas of the world every day, which we plan to use to configure our software and other core network-related systems,” said Scott Wisniewski, director of AST SpaceMobile strategy. SpaceNews.
“Such coverage should also provide opportunities to explore numerous uses of cellular broadband, including texting, voice and data applications.”
BlueWalker-3 has a 64-square-meter phased array antenna that will be stored for launch and deployed in orbit to allow it to connect with unmodified 2G, 4G and 5G phones from hundreds of miles away.
At 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” of BlueWalker 3, Wisniewski said, and have a larger field of view.
BlueWalker 1, AST SpaceMobile’s first test satellite that was 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 release contract on March 8 with SpaceX that includes a historic payment for its first operational BlueBird satellite, scheduled to launch in the fourth quarter of this year, and a reservation for an additional BlueBird mission.
The deal provides a framework that runs through the end of 2024 to order additional launches from SpaceX and allows AST SpaceMobile to delay launches after paying a rebooking fee.
AST SpaceMobile said it remains open to using other launch providers to deploy BlueBird satellites.
The company expects to have deployed 20 satellites by mid-July 2023 to provide initial services in an equatorial region comprising 49 countries and 1.6 billion people.
“We are designing BlueBirds to be compatible with numerous large launch vehicles that could deploy multiple operational satellites into orbit,” Wisniewski said.
If this launch phase goes as planned, AST SpaceMobile aims to deploy a further 90 satellites by the end of 2024 to “achieve substantial global mobile coverage.”
Wisniewski said the company aims to launch another 58 satellites by 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 facility is designed to assemble up to six BlueBird satellites per month at full capacity.
So far, AST SpaceMobile has only obtained market access licenses to provide commercial services in Nigeria and five other countries in Africa and Asia, covering a population of approximately 360 million.
“Even though it’s early days on the regulatory front,” Wisniewski said, the company and its mobile operator partners are actively working in the US and other countries to obtain permits to provide commercial services.
Globe Telecom, a mobile network operator in the Philippines, said on April 28 that it had become the latest company to sign an agreement with AST SpaceMobile and will explore using services for its 86 million wireless subscribers.
AST SpaceMobile’s applications for testing and commercial service in the Philippines are still in progress, Wisniewski said.
Texas-based AST SpaceMobile, one of several space companies that went public last year through mergers with SPAC, said it has established similar partnerships with additional mobile network operators that together serve more than 1.8 million of cell phone customers.
Around a billion mobile subscribers are covered by agreements and preliminary understandings 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 Investor presentation December 2020 In outlining plans for its merger with SPAC, the company had projected $181 million in revenue for 2023 rising to more than $1 billion by 2024.
However, AST SpaceMobile currently expects to start generating “SpaceMobile Service” revenue from its constellation in 2024 following delays in satellite manufacturing and launch.
“After launching and implementing our [BlueBird] satellites during 2023, we may seek to generate revenue by providing limited SpaceMobile service in certain countries,” the company said in its March 31 update.
The limited SpaceMobile Service would not be available on an ongoing basis, it added, and would depend on partnerships with mobile operators, regulatory approvals and other conditions.
Despite obtaining an experimental license for the United States from the FCC, it is still awaiting permission to provide commercial services here.
In addition to FCC approval to operate satellite spectrum, the company needs permission from the regulator’s Office of Wireless Telecommunications 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, which launched as part of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare mission april 1it is designed for operational services.
It has plans to deploy a total of 10 operational satellites over about 12 months for initial services including text messages and emergency alerts.
Three more operational satellites under construction for a launch this year will allow the company to begin “global commercial service in 2022 with a dozen flagship carriers,” Lynk Global said on April 6 without providing details.
The company did not respond to requests for comment.
Thousands of devices have successfully connected to its fifth demo satellite during pre-commercial testing, Lynk Global announced on February 8.