'It's going to be a year of really extensive testing and really beginning to finalize the commercial model and the go-to-market strategy,' said JR Wilson, an AT&T exec working with AST SpaceMobile.

Rob Pegoraro, Contributor, Light Reading

February 29, 2024

6 Min Read
Digital global telecommunications with satellite
(Source: Klaus Ohlenschlaeger/Alamy Stock Photo)

MWC24 – BARCELONA – The wireless industry's space race increasingly looks like a two-company contest between AT&T, partnering with AST SpaceMobile, and T-Mobile, linked up with SpaceX's Starlink.

The latter effort has gotten much more attention, thanks to Starlink's enormous constellation of satellites that now includes direct-to-cell versions and also to Elon Musk's outsized, no-inner-monologue presence on X. During MWC, Musk posted onto X via Starlink's direct-to-cell service.

But in conversations at AT&T's booth here, AT&T and AST executives professed confidence in their quieter quest to make satellite connectivity a commercial reality. 

Watch this space

"2024 is going to be a really important year," said JR Wilson, AT&T's vice president of tower strategy and roaming. "It's going to be a year of really extensive testing and really beginning to finalize the commercial model and the go-to-market strategy."

AST, meanwhile, is looking forward to the launch of its first five BlueBird satellites, higher-capacity successors to the BlueWalker 3 satellite it has used for tests of voice and data service.

"We'll be launching five satellites in Q2 which will allow us to offer some initial services," said Scott Wisniewski, executive vice president and chief strategy officer for the Midland, Texas, firm. "Initial" means availability is limited to when any one of those satellites is overhead, not slower service.

(Those launches, like the 2022 delivery of BlueWalker 3, have all used SpaceX rockets, a reflection of that company's dominance of the launch market.) 

AST says it needs five satellites to start providing service, with 90 constituting a full deployment – a tiny fraction of the 5,000-plus Starlinks now in orbit. Wilson said AT&T picked AST because of the much higher capacity and power of its satellites. 

"If AST is launching the largest antenna array, you could think of it like they're launching school buses," he said. "And maybe another satellite provider who's having to launch lots of birds, they're launching Mini Coopers. And you need a lot of Mini Coopers to be able to do the same thing that the school bus does." 

Wisniewski then emphasized how much more capacity each new generation of AST satellites will have compared to BlueWalker 3's 100MHz. 

"The satellites we're launching in Q2 have a thousand megahertz of capacity," he said, while next-generation satellites will include a custom ASIC "that we've been working on for about four years" and other improvements that will support up to 10,000MHz of capacity. 

Wisniewski said 45 satellites would provide enough coverage over the US for "a true consumer service," with the next 45 covering the rest of the globe. 

Launch logistics

AST recently tweaked its deployment plans to have this year's first satellites deployed into a higher orbital inclination that will enable them to cover up to 59 degrees latitude in the northern and southern hemispheres. 

That increase in North American coverage might suit AT&T's purposes, but Wilson said the carrier hadn't asked for the change ("it wasn't directed by AT&T"). 

Wisniewski didn't say which partner had requested it but did note that this expanded coverage would let AST reach "all the population in Canada and in northern Europe," where its investors include Bell Canada and Vodafone.

He didn't discuss AST's launch plans beyond those first five satellites but did not voice any concern over the company's ability to find launch capacity while Starlink and, soon, Amazon's Project Kuiper stand to occupy much of the West's upcoming rocket inventory.

"We've designed our satellites to be agnostic to launch vehicles," Wisniewski said. "We have flexibility amongst the providers and you know, we have relationships with all the launch service providers." 

AST also recently strengthened its relationships with carriers when AT&T, along with Vodafone and Google, cast a large financial vote of confidence in AST's prospects with a $155 million investment announced in January.  

The FCC, meanwhile, plans to vote March 14 on a proposed regulatory framework for supplemental coverage from space that would accommodate both T-Mobile and AT&T's service concepts.

"We've worked extremely well with the FCC," Wilson said. "I think we're very happy thus far."

AT&T should be able to use its Band 5 and Band 12 spectrum via AST without seeking a waiver, while Band 14 (FirstNet spectrum) will require one. Wilson noted most devices would use Band 5, which sits at 850MHz. 

A service that should feel down to Earth

Both AT&T and AST executives emphasized how this space-delivered bandwidth should not feel that different from terrestrial service – a contrast to the niche nature of the one widely-deployed satellite connectivity option, Apple's Emergency SOS, and the messaging-first ambitions of T-Mobile's planned Starlink service.

"It's not an emergency solution, it's not an SOS, it's not text or even just voice, it's able to do broadband," Wisniewski said.

"We want to be very consumer friendly," Wilson said, "both in terms of the simplicity of the service and also the pricing model."

The prospect of coverage that fills in many of the white spaces on AT&T's current maps would seem to make AST an obvious boost to AT&T's FirstNet public-safety network. But Wilson did not get into FirstNet-specific deployment details beyond stipulating that "we fully intend that AST service will be able to provide a stopgap in the event that there's a disaster or an outage." 

AST, meanwhile, announced "a new contract award from a prime contractor working with the United States Government" on February 8, but Wisniewski didn't expand on that. He did underscore a mass-market focus, saying "Our core business is the consumer market opportunity."

Wilson also suggested that AST's service coming online won't substantially change its own land-based buildout plans.

"Is there a scenario where you may not build a macro [tower] site because now you have satellite based coverage?" he said, "I could see potentially, but at the same time if you just look at it from a pure capacity perspective, the macro network will always be far superior than the satellite, the non-terrestrial network."

That may also reflect a certain amount of caution about the capital-intensive nature of satellite infrastructure.

"Satellite businesses, they're not for the faint of heart," Wilson said. "I started my career at Teledesic, so I know."

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About the Author(s)

Rob Pegoraro

Contributor, Light Reading

Rob Pegoraro covers telecom, computers, gadgets, apps, and other things that beep or blink from the D.C. area since the mid-1990s. In addition to right here, you can find his work at such places as USA Today, Fast Company and Wirecutter, you can e-mail him at [email protected], find him on Twitter as @robpegoraro, and read more at robpegoraro.com.

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