Mission accelerated: AST SpaceMobile's CEO paints the big picture

With Verizon and AT&T as partners and spectrum contributors, AST SpaceMobile's CEO is tempting shareholders with a space-based broadband vision to rival what we've heard from T-Mobile and SpaceX. Will it be a mess or a masterpiece?

Phil Harvey, Editor-in-Chief

July 2, 2024

4 Min Read
Digitally generated image of a 3d solar power satellite
(Source: Sean Prior/Alamy Stock Photo)

The satellite industry is all about talking up the future. It can sound like bragging, but the executives in that business are always tasked with building a reputation for what they're about to do tomorrow.

To raise the kind of coin, cooperation and consideration necessary to put birds in space, you must deftly paint "the big picture."

Abel Avellan, chairman and CEO of AST SpaceMobile, got his best brushes out this week as he sent a colorful letter to shareholders saying his company will have the "largest commercial communications satellite ever deployed in Low Earth Orbit."

It'll be a cell tower in the sky that can connect calls and distribute data "even in remote areas with limited terrestrial infrastructure," Avellan's letter stated. "Whether you are scaling a mountain peak, exploring a national park, or simply commuting to work, you'll have reliable cellular access wherever you go within the United States."

It sounds amazing. It's like the kind of unfettered access we were promised with 5G, 4G, and, come to think of it, 3G. I can always hear the choir singing but can't find the church.

As luck would have it, telcos are critical to Avellan's big picture. They're lining up with space startups, picking sides and setting strategies, adding their marketing power and investment dollars to power some bigger, bolder brush strokes.

AT&T, Google and others have backed AST SpaceMobile, pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the startup so it could get its LEO satellites in orbit. Verizon, AT&T and AST SpaceMobile are working against the clock to compete with SpaceX, which has partnered with T-Mobile and aims to provide a similar blanket of uninterrupted data service and cellphone coverage.

"The key to unlocking this ubiquitous coverage lies in the power of the premium 850 MHz low-band spectrum, which offers superior signal penetration in the lowband cellular range," AST SpaceMobile's Avellan wrote. "AT&T and Verizon together will share with AST SpaceMobile a portion of their respective bands of 850 MHz low-band spectrum to enable nationwide satellite coverage."

Timing is everything

SpaceX's "direct-to-cell" service with T-Mobile is expected to launch commercially in the US in just a few months. In its recent filings with the FCC, the company wrote: "SpaceX ... looks forward to launching commercial direct-to-cellular service in the United States this fall," the company wrote.

Avellan's letter to AST SpaceMobile investors offered only headlines – no timelines or deadlines. But it has made calls from Maui to Madrid, a space-based connectivity flex that consumers and first responders should watch with interest.

As we've noted, it's still unclear how carriers will profit from adding LEO connections to their repertoire. There's no detail on whether AST SpaceMobile pays for the spectrum use upfront or has some kind of deal where it charges a per-device roaming fee on its satellite network. Or neither. Or both.

An AT&T contact said those commercial arrangements are fresh, and the details are still being worked out. AST SpaceMobile didn't tell me anything. We sent them several questions over a less exciting fiber-to-the-home network and got no replies.

A bridge to where?

What Avellan's letter lacks in business details, it makes up for in confidence. "This is just the beginning," writes the AST SpaceMobile CEO. "We remain dedicated to fostering similar partnerships with other mobile network operators, aiming to bridge the digital divide on a global scale."

Having reasonably good connectivity available in remote areas is a huge first step toward bridging the digital divide. But the job is much bigger than that. Making Internet service affordable, having it available on affordable devices, offering education and explaining the opportunities therein will most likely take an act of Congress.

Also, when I think of big telcos, I recall their talent for acting a lot more like for-profit companies and less like practical, community-focused utilities. So, I'm curious to see if Avellan's sky-high digital divide claims will have any bearing on Earth.

That said, this week, Avellan's brushes were hitting all over the canvas, and his letter should leave investors with the impression that, though they may not be the first to market, they'll somehow be better.

"Through strategic agreements with AT&T and Verizon, along with Vodafone, Rakuten, Google, American Tower, Bell Canada, and more than 45 mobile network operators, we’ve established a strong foundation," he wrote. "These partnerships unite us with networks that serve more than 2.8 billion subscribers, propelling us closer to achieving this ambitious goal."

The satellite industry is nothing if not ambitious and this is no exception. AST SpaceMobile is getting two of the three largest US carriers to work with its satellite network, contribute spectrum, cooperate and invest in a LEO network that will help both AT&T and Verizon connect more people and devices and maybe even offer a suite of services that aren't possible now.

That alone is noteworthy, and we assume that soon enough, we'll start to see the texture, shading and finer details that will bolster or break AST SpaceMobile's reputation as it takes on SpaceX and others.

The big picture for a hyperconnected future is beginning to take shape. Assuming we'll hear more soon, join me as we stand in the back of the room and squint.

About the Author(s)

Phil Harvey

Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

Phil Harvey has been a Light Reading writer and editor for more than 18 years combined. He began his second tour as the site's chief editor in April 2020.

His interest in speed and scale means he often covers optical networking and the foundational technologies powering the modern Internet.

Harvey covered networking, Internet infrastructure and dot-com mania in the late 90s for Silicon Valley magazines like UPSIDE and Red Herring before joining Light Reading (for the first time) in late 2000.

After moving to the Republic of Texas, Harvey spent eight years as a contributing tech writer for D CEO magazine, producing columns about tech advances in everything from supercomputing to cellphone recycling.

Harvey is an avid photographer and camera collector – if you accept that compulsive shopping and "collecting" are the same.

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