AT&T gives AST SpaceMobile a big, public shoutout

'I can carry any cell phone, and it can be connected to the satellite network? What a terrific opportunity,' said AT&T's Chris Sambar in an AST SpaceMobile video, a signal of support for the startup.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

December 20, 2022

4 Min Read
AT&T gives AST SpaceMobile a big, public shoutout

AT&T's support for startup AST SpaceMobile has been relatively subdued over the past few years. But that ended today.

"The opportunity to extend that [AT&T] network with the network that AST is building, this space-based cellular network? Really exciting chance ahead of us," said Chris Sambar, AT&T's chief networking executive, in a new video released by SpaceMobile. "I mean, the potential to integrate a mobile wireless network like we have and a direct-to-cell network of AST? I can carry any cell phone, and it can be connected to the satellite network? What a terrific opportunity."

The video is noteworthy because AT&T is one of the biggest wireless network operators in the world, and Sambar controls a large part of the operator's multibillion-dollar network spending budget. The fact that he made a five-minute support video for SpaceMobile will likely go a long way toward convincing regulators and investors to provide both the necessary approvals for SpaceMobile's satellite launch plans as well as the money it will take to get the company's satellites into low-Earth orbit (LEO).

Going public

Light Reading first reported of a connection between AST SpaceMobile and AT&T in July 2020. The companies' agreement became clearer toward the end of 2020 when SpaceMobile released an investor presentation detailing its funding situation, business model and financial targets. As part of that presentation, the company said it finalized a commercial agreement with AT&T in the August 2020 timeframe. But at the time, SpaceMobile said it didn't expect to cover much of AT&T's North American footprint with its "Phase 1" efforts, nor did it provide any details on the type of revenue share agreement it might have with AT&T.

However, the companies' ongoing relationship became clearer earlier this year when the FCC agreed to allow SpaceMobile to test its network operations in spectrum owned by AT&T.

In his video, released Tuesday, AT&T's Sambar said he began working with AST SpaceMobile in 2018, when he headed AT&T's FirstNet business. He said the companies have since been working to test the possibility of phone-to-satellite communications first on SpaceMobile's BlueWalker 1 satellite and, more recently, on the BlueWalker 3 satellite SpaceMobile launched in September.

Figure 1: (Source: NASA) (Source: NASA)

Sambar was promoted to the role of president of AT&T's network earlier this year.

Momentum against competitors

Sambar's testimonial comes at an important time for SpaceMobile. The company recently launched a $75 million public offering, but it will need far more money than that to get its planned 168 satellite constellation into space. That fundraising will undoubtedly be complicated by SpaceMobile's falling share price; the company's stock has tumbled from a high of almost $14 per share in August to around $4 today.

SpaceMobile will also need regulatory approval for its overall plan. Already, the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which runs the Center for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellation Interference, has warned that SpaceMobile's massive BlueWalker 3 satellite "is now one of the brightest objects in the night sky, outshining all but the brightest stars," a situation that could threaten the science of astronomy.

However, SpaceMobile received a boost this week from NASA. As noted by SpaceNews, the space agency signed an agreement with SpaceMobile to cooperate on spaceflight safety and data sharing. NASA inked a similar agreement with SpaceX's Starlink in 2021 amid that company's efforts to expand its own LEO satellite constellation.

Of course, SpaceMobile isn't the only company pursuing the phone-to-satellite communications market, nor is it the only company with a vocal supporter among the mobile network operator community. For example, T-Mobile earlier this year hosted a high-profile media event to announce its own phone-to-satellite plans with Elon Musk's SpaceX.

Verizon too is reportedly interested in phone-to-satellite communications, but it hasn't yet announced a partner for such a service.

One of the other startups in the field – and one that's looking for mobile network operator customers – is SpaceMobile's rival Lynk Global. Lynk previously had promised to offer commercial phone-to-satellite services sometime during 2022, but it has recently changed that timeframe to "early" 2023. Company officials explained that the situation was due to a slight delay in SpaceX's rocket launch schedule. Like many satellite hopefuls, Lynk is using SpaceX to get its satellites into orbit.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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