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SpaceMobile's 5G from space touted as 'a game changer'

Abel Avellan has a clear message for his company's investors and the wider market in general: Speedy 5G is coming. From space. Soon.

"We believe being connected is a human right," said Avellan, the CEO of SpaceMobile, which is the go-to-market brand from Midland, Texas-based startup AST & Science (AST).

However, Avellan is facing some stiff opposition. T-Mobile and Verizon are urging the FCC to reject SpaceMobile's satellite launch plans, arguing the company's operations could potentially interfere with their terrestrial networks. And NASA – the US federal agency in charge of civilian space flight – is warning that SpaceMobile's satellites could cause "unacceptably high risk of a catastrophic debris-producing collision."

"They don't really know our system," Avellan said of NASA's concerns. "We will address this."

SpaceMobile is one of two startups (the other is called Lynk) that wants to beam 5G signals directly to mobile users' existing smartphones from low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites using incumbent wireless network operators' licensed spectrum holdings. Such a technology would be revolutionary because it would immediately eliminate virtually all dead zones, ensuring that mobile customers have a signal no matter where they are, all via their current phone.

Speedy 5G from space

After testing its technology with AT&T – as Light Reading first reported – SpaceMobile went public earlier this year with the announcement of a $110 million Series B round of funding from Japan's Rakuten, Europe's Vodafone, cell tower giant American Tower, real estate company Cisneros and Samsung's venture capital arm, Samsung Next. Today, the company counts around 160 full-time employees and hopes to begin launching its commercial satellites as early as next year.

Avellan told Light Reading this week that SpaceMobile expects to be able to begin providing commercial 4G and 5G services with a few dozen satellites and that its service would meet the FCC's definition of 5G broadband via download speeds of around 35Mbit/s and latency between 20-40 ms. He said the company's satellites would transmit in operators' lowband and midband spectrum holdings, including forthcoming C-band spectrum.

Avellan also said SpaceMobile plans to stick to its previously announced business model: A wholesaler that will not sell its services directly to users but will instead sell the use of its LEO network to mobile network operators that can then bill customers for the ability to connect directly to satellites when their terrestrial network is not available.

"We're tackling that for the first time head-on," Avellan noted.

Avellan said SpaceMobile's constellation of LEO satellites would work like those of other LEO satellite Internet providers like SpaceX: The more satellites the company launches, the more customers it will be able to support.

"The amount of [network] capacity is proportional to the number of satellites," Avellan said, adding that SpaceMobile is planning "a mass market service."

NASA's worries

Interest in SpaceMobile's plans reached a fever pitch last month when the FCC began soliciting comments on its plans to broadcast 4G and 5G signals from space. Several companies, including investors Rakuten and Samsung, voiced support for the company's plans, as well as US Sen. Ted Cruz, who hails from SpaceMobile's home state of Texas.

However, one prominent opponent to SpaceMobile's plans is NASA, which wrote to the FCC that SpaceMobile's proposed satellites could collide with existing objects in orbit, partly because of the large size of SpaceMobile's proposed satellites.

The company should "consider alternative orbit regimes for this constellation," NASA wrote.

Avellan acknowledged that SpaceMobile's satellites sport larger dimensions than other LEO satellites, but he argued the satellites' design and shape wouldn't cause problems to existing satellites. He also said the company is fully prepared to address all of NASA's concerns and pointed out that NASA itself wrote that the agency evaluated SpaceMobile's plans "with only a few days' notice and with a very limited amount of information."

Avellan said SpaceMobile would not publicly release details on its proposed satellites' size and shape but would work directly with NASA on the topic.

Debate among potential customers

Interestingly, NASA wasn't the only prominent opponent to SpaceMobile's plans. T-Mobile and Verizon – two potential SpaceMobile customers – also registered their opposition to the company's efforts.

"AST has not provided any technical analysis about the mobile portion of its operations to demonstrate that it will be able to operate in these bands without causing harmful interference to licensed, primary terrestrial operations," T-Mobile wrote, adding that it is already "dedicated to bridging the digital divide and ... is in the process of deploying high-speed 5G and in-home broadband to rural areas" via its terrestrial network.

Verizon too argued that "AST provides no indication that it will be able to precisely limit the coverage of its satellite network so that its satellites transmit and receive only in the geographic areas of, and only with the wireless devices of, customers of carriers that elect to enter into spectrum-sharing agreements with AST."

In its own filing with the FCC, AT&T expressed interest in SpaceMobile's plans and wrote that the startup's service "could enhance mobile network performance and be a game-changer for their customers in those hard to reach areas." But AT&T said SpaceMobile's technology "raises several technical issues that may require further analysis and study."

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

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