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Satellite

Geopolitics invades the 5G race to space

This week AST SpaceMobile announced a "a multi-launch agreement" with Elon Musk's SpaceX. Under the terms of the deal, AST SpaceMobile agreed to pay around $23 million to get its BlueBird (BB) satellite into space and to cover a "launch reservation fee for a future BB launch."

"This agreement secures the availability for a reliable launch of our first production satellites out of the US," AST SpaceMobile CEO Abel Avellan said in a release.

The company's announcement comes just days after satellite upstart OneWeb ordered staff to leave Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan amid a fight with Russian officials over the launch of its satellites. The issue stems from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and fallout between Russia and Western countries over sanctions.

But, according to SpaceNews, the issue for OneWeb is significant. Although the company builds its satellites in Florida with Airbus, it uses thrusters imported from Fakel, a Russian propulsion company. It's not clear how that situation might affect OneWeb's broad ambitions to launch hundreds of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.

(Source: Official Space X Photos on Flickr CC2.0)
(Source: Official Space X Photos on Flickr CC2.0)

However, Russian officials are growing increasingly clear on the situation. According to Reuters, the country plans to stop supplying US companies with rockets. "We can't supply the United States with our world's best rocket engines. Let them fly on something else, their broomsticks, I don't know what," Dmitry Rogozin, head of Russia's state space agency, Roscosmos, said this week, according to the publication.

Broadly, the developments help highlight the impact that Russia's invasion of Ukraine – and its wider geopolitical ramifications – might have on the burgeoning space-based Internet industry. Although satellites for years have offered global communications services, a new crop of veteran satellite companies and upstarts like OneWeb and AST SpaceMobile are hoping to make satellites and 5G a more substantive component to the world's telecommunications fabric.

Indeed, Verizon officials recently described Amazon's planned Kuiper satellites as another layer of Verizon's network. "The new layer we will deploy is the satellite layer," Verizon CTO Kyle Malady said earlier this month. "Our announcement with Kuiper last year will give us additional coverage that is complementary to our Network as a Service strategy. We expect to test Kuiper service in 2023. We see satellite as providing coverage extension for rural broadband, remote connectivity and remote global enterprises."

But such satellite efforts may become far more regionalized and country-specific if geopolitical tensions continue to heat up. That's noteworthy considering Russia has long been a major player in the global satellite industry; after all, the country was the first to put a human into space roughly 60 years ago.

Importantly, AST SpaceMobile isn't the only satellite company touting its US-based launch plans. Lynk Global – which also hopes to connect its satellites to existing mobile phones, like AST SpaceMobile – plans to launch commercial services later this year. Lynk is preparing to launch its sixth satellite in April, also via US-based SpaceX.

Meanwhile, Globalstar recently announced deals with MDA and Rocket Lab to build 17 new satellites. According to SpaceNews, MDA will assemble and test the Globalstar satellites in a new facility in Montreal.

Separately, Inmarsat recently said it plans to launch new satellites through SpaceX.

Other countries have been investing in their own satellite resources as well. For example, Chinese startup GalaxySpace this week launched China's first LEO broadband satellite constellation, essentially creating a China-based alternative to SpaceX's Starlink.

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

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