Vodafone Backed AST Space Mobile Begin Testing 4G and 5G Satellite

AST-SpaceMobile-BlueWalker-3-Satellite-with-Earth

AST SpaceMobile, which is backed by Vodafone and various other global mobile operators, has successfully completed the deployment of a huge 693-square-foot (64.4-square-meter) phased array antenna on their prototype BlueWalker 3 LEO satellite. The platform will be used to test a new space-based 4G and 5G cellular broadband network.

Over the past few months we’ve seen various space companies, such as Starlink (here) and OneWeb (here), move to harness their new ultrafast broadband satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to deliver affordable 4G (LTE) and 5G mobile services – using common standards – over a wide area (global roaming), often even without consumers even needing to buy a new handset.

The idea itself is nothing new. For example, the EU funded and BT supported Satellite and Terrestrial Network for 5G (SaT5G) project (here) has already made it possible to develop solutions that can integrate a standard commercially available 5G core network into a live satellite network. But seeing such ideas being turned into reality is always exciting to watch.

The latest company to join this club is Texas-based AST SpaceMobile, which back in 2020 received a funding injection of $25m (£19.5m) from Vodafone to help it develop a space-based mobile network (here). At the time, AST SM had just launched their first experimental BlueWalker 1 satellite, which was a tiny CubeSat (about the size of a bread tin) that was used to test some of their experimental ideas.

Fast-forward to today and AST SM has now completed the deployment of their latest and most significant BlueWalker 3 satellite, which orbits at an altitude of a little over 500km (LEO) and is a near final prototype for the even larger operational BlueBird satellites.

The signature feature of the 1.5 ton BW3 satellite is a huge 693-square-foot (64.4-square-meter) phased array antenna, which can directly communicate with mobile phones on the ground. This is the largest-ever commercial communications array in Low Earth Orbit. The satellite is expected to have a Field of View (FoV) of over 300,000 square miles on the surface of the Earth.

Abel Avellan, Chairman and CEO of AST SpaceMobile, said:

“Every person should have the right to access cellular broadband, regardless of where they live or work. Our goal is to close the connectivity gaps that negatively impact billions of lives around the world. The successful unfolding of BlueWalker 3 is a major step forward for our patented space-based cellular broadband technology and paves the way for the ongoing production of our BlueBird satellites.”

Assuming the testing goes well, then we can expect AST SM to start launching a full constellation of 100 BlueBird satellites by the end of 2024. The first five of these will be similar to BW3, while the rest will be even larger. The company already has a mutual exclusivity agreement with Vodafone in 24 countries, as well as various agreements and understandings with other mobile network operators around the world.

However, questions remain over the likely cost and performance of such services, although the aim is to make them attractive for regular consumers (we suspect this may form part of a ‘global roaming’ style add-on for your plan, at extra cost) . Further challenges may also come from the need to deploy ground stations and to secure regulatory approval for related radio spectrum across multiple countries. no mean feat.

On top of that, the new satellite has already attracted some concern from astronomers and those involved in other space-focused observational sciences, which warn that platforms with such a large antenna array can pollute the data they’re trying to collect – BW3 is already said to outshine even Venus in the night sky. Not to mention the rising risk from “space junk” and collisions in orbit. But so far regulators have not taken any firm action on these issues.

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