A Samsung Galaxy was used by an engineer in Texas to call a mobile phone located in Rakuten and say hello. This was a simple, yet 21st-century version of a modern communications miracle. The Galaxy did not connect through a cell tower nearby, but instead transmitted and received signals from a satellite 300 miles above.
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According to AST SpaceMobile, the company who held the demonstration in early this month, it was the first time a voice call had been made using a satellite relay with a mobile phone that wasn't modified. Satellite phones, which are expensive and specialized, have been around for decades. The newest iPhones, however, can send texts through a relay satellite. Mobile phones that work with cell phones a few miles from the towers, were not able to access high bandwidth applications.
The mobile phone is ubiquitous but there are vast areas of the world that do not have cell towers. This may be because of complicated geography or low density populations, which make installing them more difficult than they're worth. AST SpaceMobile is among several companies that are betting on the idea of filling in these gaps using space technology.
Apple's partnership with satellite operator GlobalStar allows it to provide emergency text messaging services to iPhone users. SpaceX and T-Mobile are collaborating to use Starlink's network for low-bandwidth messages. Lynk is another space startup that wants to partner with terrestrial phone companies to provide coverage using its satellites.
AST SpaceMobile has the most ambitious plan of all these companies, as it intends to provide enough bandwidth for voice calling. All of these companies face the same challenge: mobile phones do not have large antennas or a lot of transmitting power, so they need software to trick them into talking with satellites. The distances involved make it difficult to establish high-quality connections.
For AST the solution is simple: put a large antenna on your satellite. The company launched Bluewater-3 last year. It has a 693-square-foot antenna, likely the largest in low earth orbit. This allows it to communicate with mobile phone signals more easily.
This also raises concerns about space debri and astronomical observation. AST's concerns about NASA's first worries over the size of the spacecraft led to a special agreement for information sharing with the agency. Bluewalker-3, along with other spacecraft that are circling our planet, is a concern for space scientists.
As more and more services and people move online, the demand for connectivity appears to be unstoppable. The biggest demand for coverage is outside the existing terrestrial networks in rural areas, and in countries with less economic development. This limits the amount users can charge.
Space infrastructure remains expensive. Apple spent $300 million on adding space connectivity to iPhones. However, this is a small amount compared to the $200 billion in iPhones that the company sold during the last fiscal. AST SpaceMobile has spent more than $90,000,000 on its current satellite, including the cost of launch. However, its next five satellites will cost around $20,000,000 each. The company still says that it will require more than $550m to complete its network.
Regulation is another issue. AST SpaceMobile does not have permission to operate from the Federal Communications Commission, and obtaining this (and ensuring it doesn't disrupt other networks) requires serious work. This week, the call was made over spectrum owned and operated by US telecom giant AT&T.
Is this a la carte? It's not clear if this is part of the normal cell service, but it does seem that a partner with deep pockets would be a must to launch such a business. These telecom and device makers are moving towards a world where they don't care about networks, in order to connect as efficiently as possible. Satellites will play a part.