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AST SpaceMobile

May 18, 2022

Technology Development

 AST SpaceMobile — building a space-based broadband cellular network

 

AST SpaceMobile Inc, of Midland, Texas is a satellite telecommunications company building a space-based broadband cellular network. This network called AST SpaceMobile allows unmodified standard smartphones stay connected to 4G LTE/5G cellular networks via satellites.

AST SpaceMobile, Inc. was previously AST & Science before it went public. AST & Science purchased a controlling interest of NanoAvionics in March 2018. 1)

AST & Science acquired a controlling interest in NanoAvionics in March 2018 as part of its strategy to establish manufacturing capabilities in Europe and North America. Abel Avellan, CEO and chairman of AST & Science serves as chairman of NanoAvionics' Board of Directors.

According to Avellan, the three new satellites, based on NanoAvionics' proprietary M6P satellite bus, will be used to test a range of experimental payloads for defense and commercial customers, and will include a Q/V-band satellite for test and evaluation.

"The flexibility of the proven M6P bus and the close collaboration with our associates at NanoAvionics will enable us to design, build, integrate, launch and test a multitude of experimental payloads in orbit within six months or less," said Avellan. "This is unprecedented in the satellite industry."

• The initial test bed satellite BlueWalker 1 launched on April 1, 2019 (along with other satellites). 2)

- The BlueWalker 1 nanosatellite was launched into orbit on a PSLV-C45 launch vehicle from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in India April 1. The satellite is functioning satisfactorily and is ready to move into full operation. The LEO orbit has an altitude of ~500 km and an inclination of 97.5º.

• On March 9, 2022, AST SpaceMobile announced it has signed a multi-launch agreement with SpaceX. In addition to the planned summer launch of the BlueWalker 3 test satellite (BW3), the agreement covers the launch of the first BlueBird satellite and provides a framework for future launches. 3)

About AST SpaceMobile

AST SpaceMobile is building the first and only global cellular broadband network in space to operate directly with standard, unmodified mobile devices based on our extensive IP and patent portfolio. Our engineers and space scientists are on a mission to eliminate the connectivity gaps faced by today's five billion mobile subscribers and finally bring broadband to the billions who remain unconnected.

 


 

Development status

• May 17, 2022: AST SpaceMobile will start deploying operational satellites in 2023 "even in the event of any complication" with the BlueWalker 3 prototype slated to launch this summer, an executive for the cellphone-compatible broadband constellation said. 4)

- The startup's operational BlueBird satellite program has been "advancing alongside" more than 700 ground tests performed on BlueWalker 3, AST SpaceMobile CEO Abel Avellan said during a May 16 earnings call.

- Scott Wisniewski, AST SpaceMobile's chief strategy officer, said the BlueBird satellites it will start building in-house this year are benefiting from the more than $80 million spent on BlueWalker 3 over several years.

- "The BlueWalker 3 program, like any prototype, gave us the opportunity to put our technical solutions into practice, address design-for-manufacturing issues, develop our supplier base, refine internal teams and processes, and conduct on-the-ground testing," Wisniewski said via email.

- While a "significant amount of testing can be done on the ground," Wisniewski said BlueWalker 3's upcoming SpaceX Falcon 9 launch remains important for demonstrating technology in low Earth orbit and configuring ground infrastructure.

- The 1,500 kg BlueWalker 3 prototype, which AST SpaceMobile has said is significantly smaller than BlueBird, has a 64 m2 phased array antenna designed to unfold in space to communicate with smartphones and other devices at broadband speeds.

- AST SpaceMobile secured an experimental license May 2 from the Federal Communications Commission to test BlueWalker 3 services in Hawaii and its home state of Texas.

- AST SpaceMobile also expects to test BlueWalker 3 with cellular partners in Japan, Europe, Africa, South America and Asia.

Figure 1: AST SpaceMobile's BlueWalker 3 prototype satellite is due to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket this summer (image credit: AST SpaceMobile)
Figure 1: AST SpaceMobile's BlueWalker 3 prototype satellite is due to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket this summer (image credit: AST SpaceMobile)

- Wisniewski said the company will use BlueWalker 3 to configure ground equipment and software at the gateway level to optimize its planned services.

- "We plan to use BlueWalker 3 for this kind of testing and it is an important step to keep the ground network development on schedule with the space network development," he said.

- "Our gateway development efforts have been underway for years, together with customers and vendors, alongside the space network development."

- BlueWalker 3 is slated to launch on a Falcon 9 rocket with other passengers.

- AST SpaceMobile also has a contract with SpaceX for launching the first BlueBird in 2023. Their agreement provides a framework for ordering additional launches until the end of 2024, when AST SpaceMobile expects to have deployed 110 satellites to achieve "substantial global" mobile coverage.

- AST SpaceMobile remains open to using other launch providers for deploying its constellation, and has said more than one BlueBird could fly on a heavy-lift vehicle.

Supply chain resilience

- Avellan said during the company's earnings call that AST SpaceMobile is on track to complete a second manufacturing facility in Texas by the end of 2022, which would enable the company to ramp up to producing six satellites a month the following year.

- He said AST SpaceMobile is confident its expansion plans will not be caught up in supply chain issues that have delayed other satellite projects.

- To lower the company's exposure to semiconductor shortages, he said AST SpaceMobile has been stocking up on flexible chips that can be reprogrammed after they are manufactured.

- Early BlueBirds will leverage these Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs), Avellan said, while later satellites will migrate to application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs).

- "We feel that we can continue to execute on our plan despite any potential supply chain issues," he added.

- AST SpaceMobile has been providing quarterly business updates since becoming a public company April 7, 2021, after merging with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) in a deal that raised about $462 million.

- AST SpaceMobile said it had about $254 million in cash and cash equivalents as of March 31, after incurring $32.7 million in operating expenses over the previous three months.

- About $8.3 million was spent on research and development (R&D) for the three months to March 31, up $8 million from the same period in 2021. Although AST SpaceMobile expects R&D will increase until BlueBird's design and development are completed, the company said it has enough cash for at least 12 months.

- The company also announced a deal May 6 to raise up to $75 million by issuing and selling shares to B. Riley, a financial services firm, at AST SpaceMobile's own discretion over the following 24 months.

- AST SpaceMobile had projected $181 million in revenue for 2023 in a December 2020 presentation outlining its SPAC merger plans.

- However, satellite manufacturing and launch delays have pushed plans to start generating revenues from the constellation into 2024.

- AST SpaceMobile's shares closed at $7.01 May 16, after fluctuating as high as $15.48 and as low as $4.84 over a 52-week period.

- AST SpaceMobile has said it has early agreements with mobile operators worldwide that want to use its satellites to expand their coverage areas. According to the company, these mobile operators collectively serve more than 1.8 billion cellular customers.

- Virginia-based Lynk Global, which as a private company is not required to disclose the same level of detail about its business plans as AST SpaceMobile, is also developing a constellation to connect smartphones that are out the reach of cellular towers.

- SpaceX launched Lynk Global's first operational satellite April 1, and the startup expects to deploy nine more in the next 12 months for text messaging, emergency alerts and other initial services.

- Like AST Space Mobile, Lynk Global is awaiting regulatory permission to provide commercial services in the U.S. and various other countries.

- Established satellite operator SES recently revealed that it is also considering plans to provide 5G services directly to handheld devices.

• May 3, 2022: AST SpaceMobile secured an experimental license May 2 to test services in the United States from BlueWalker 3, the prototype satellite slated to launch this summer for its planned cellphone-compatible broadband constellation. 5)

- The license from the FCC permits the company to connect unmodified cellular devices in Texas and Hawaii with BlueWalker 3 for up to several minutes daily.

- SpaceX is slated to launch BlueWalker 3 to low Earth orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket with other passengers.

- AST SpaceMobile said it has regulatory permission for BlueWalker 3 to use cellular frequencies to connect to phones in the U.S. — and then spectrum in Q and V bands to direct the traffic back to gateways on the ground — under certain restrictions.

- "The BlueWalker 3 satellite would give us about five minutes of coverage in most areas around the world every day, which we plan to use to configure our software and other systems related to the network core," AST SpaceMobile chief strategy officer Scott Wisniewski told SpaceNews.

- "Such coverage should also provide opportunities to explore numerous uses of cellular broadband, including texting, voice, and data applications."

- BlueWalker 3 has a 64 m2 phased array antenna that will be stowed for launch and deployed in orbit to enable it to connect with unmodified 2G, 4G and 5G phones from hundreds of miles away.

- At around 1,500 kg, BlueWalker 3 is a much smaller version of the company's planned operational BlueBird satellites AST SpaceMobile is building in-house. Each BlueBird will have a mass "well north" of BlueWalker 3, Wisniewski said, and have a larger field of view.

- BlueWalker 1, AST SpaceMobile's first test satellite that was also built in-house, was launched in April 2019 to validate the company's satellite-to-cellular architecture using the 4G-LTE wireless protocol.

Getting operational

- AST SpaceMobile signed a launch contract March 8 with SpaceX that includes a milestone payment for its first operational BlueBird satellite, slated to launch in 2023, and a reservation for an additional BlueBird mission.

- The agreement provides a framework that runs until the end of 2024 for ordering additional SpaceX launches, and permits AST SpaceMobile to delay launches after paying a rebooking fee.

- AST SpaceMobile said it remains open to using other launch providers for deploying BlueBird satellites.

- The company expects to have deployed 110 satellites by the end of 2024 to achieve "substantial global" mobile coverage.

- "We're designing BlueBirds for compatibility with numerous large launch vehicles that could deploy multiple operational satellites into orbit," Wisniewski said.

- Wisniewski said the company aims to launch another 58 satellites in 2025 to improve services by enabling Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MIMO) capabilities, a technology using multiple transmitters and receivers to transfer more data at the same time.

- AST Space Mobile says its Texas manufacturing facilities are designed to assemble up to six BlueBird satellites per month at full capacity.

Regulatory milestones

- AST SpaceMobile has so far only secured market access licenses to provide commercial services in Nigeria and five other countries across Africa and Asia, covering a population of about 360 million.

- "Despite it being early days on the regulatory front," Wisniewski said the company and its mobile operator partners are actively working in the U.S. and other countries for permission to provide commercial services.

- Globe Telecom, a mobile network operator in the Philippines, said April 28 it had become the latest company to sign a deal with AST SpaceMobile, and will explore using services for its 86 million wireless subscribers.

- AST SpaceMobile's applications for testing and commercial service in the Philippines are still in progress, Wisniewski said.

- Texas-based AST SpaceMobile, one of several space companies to go public last year via SPAC mergers, said it has entered into similar partnerships with additional mobile network operators that collectively serve more than 1.8 billion cellular customers.

- About 1 billion mobile subscribers are covered by preliminary agreements and understandings to set up revenue-sharing deals, AST SpaceMobile said in a March 31 financial update.

- AST SpaceMobile had previously planned to launch BlueWalker 3 in 2021 and 20 BlueBird satellites by the end of 2022 to begin commercial services in 2023. The company has said it plans to provide initial services with 20 satellites serving the equatorial region, comprising 49 countries and 1.6 billion people.

- In a December 2020 investor presentation outlining plans for its SPAC merger, the company had projected $181 million in revenue for 2023 that would rise to more than $1 billion for 2024.

- However, AST SpaceMobile currently expects to start generating "SpaceMobile Service" revenue from its constellation in 2024 following satellite manufacturing and launch delays.

- "After we launch and deploy our [BlueBird] satellites during 2023, we may seek to generate revenue by providing a limited SpaceMobile Service in certain countries," the company said in its March 31 update.

- The limited SpaceMobile Service would not be available on a continuous basis, it added, and would be dependent on partnerships with mobile operators, regulatory approvals and other conditions.

- Despite securing an experimental license for the United States from the FCC, it is still waiting for permission to provide commercial services here.

- In addition to FCC approval for operating satellite spectrum, the company needs permission from the regulator's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau to use frequencies traditionally used by terrestrial mobile network operators.

- Virginia-based Lynk Global is also waiting for a U.S. market access license for a constellation it is developing to provide connectivity to unmodified phones.

- Lynk Global has deployed six satellites to date. The company says its latest satellite, Lynk Tower 1 that launched as part of a SpaceX Falcon 9 ride-share mission April 1, is designed for operational services.

- It has plans to deploy a total of 10 operational satellites over around 12 months for initial services that include text messaging and emergency alerts.

- Three more operational satellites under construction for a launch this year will enable the company to begin "global commercial service in 2022 with a dozen flagship operators," Lynk Global said April 6 without providing details.

- The company did not respond to requests for comment.

- Thousands of devices had successfully connected to its fifth demonstration satellite during pre-commercial tests, Lynk Global announced Feb. 8.

• May 2, 2022: AST SpaceMobile, Inc., the company building the first and only space-based cellular broadband network designed to be accessible directly by standard mobile phones, today announced it has received an experimental license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) supporting its U.S.-based testing of the BlueWalker 3 satellite. 6)

- The license covers BlueWalker 3 space-to-ground testing in the United States using 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project) low-band cellular frequencies and Q/V-band frequencies, subject to certain restrictions.

- The authorization comes as the company prepares for the planned summer 2022 launch of BlueWalker 3, its test satellite with an aperture of 693 square feet (64 m2) that is designed to communicate directly with cell phones via 3GPP standard frequencies.

- "We appreciate the diligent support of the FCC in providing the experimental license for our upcoming satellite launch," said AST SpaceMobile Founder, Chairman and CEO Abel Avellan. "Together with other testing around the world, this license will enable us to conduct some of our most important testing here, at home, in the United States."

- AST SpaceMobile continues to pursue additional authorizations with the FCC related to its planned constellation of BlueBird satellites.

- AST SpaceMobile's mission is to eliminate the connectivity gaps faced by today's five billion mobile subscribers moving in and out of coverage zones, and bring cellular broadband to approximately half of the world's population who remain unconnected. Partners in this effort are leading global wireless infrastructure companies, including Rakuten Mobile, Vodafone and American Tower.

Figure 2: Illustration of the BlueWalker 3 prototype satellite in orbit with a 64 m2 aperture phased array antenna. AST SpaceMobile's mission is to eliminate the connectivity gaps faced by today's five billion mobile subscribers moving in and out of coverage zones, and bring cellular broadband to approximately half of the world's population who remain unconnected (image credit: AST SpaceMobile)
Figure 2: Illustration of the BlueWalker 3 prototype satellite in orbit with a 64 m2 aperture phased array antenna. AST SpaceMobile's mission is to eliminate the connectivity gaps faced by today's five billion mobile subscribers moving in and out of coverage zones, and bring cellular broadband to approximately half of the world's population who remain unconnected (image credit: AST SpaceMobile)

• March 9, 2022: AST SpaceMobile, Inc. ("AST SpaceMobile") (NASDAQ: ASTS), the company building the first and only space-based cellular broadband network accessible directly by standard mobile phones, today announced it has signed a multi-launch agreement with Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX). In addition to the planned summer launch of the BlueWalker 3 test satellite (BW3), the agreement covers the launch of the first BlueBird satellite and provides a framework for future launches. 7)

- "This agreement secures the availability for a reliable launch of our first production satellites out of the U.S.," said AST SpaceMobile Founder, Chairman and CEO Abel Avellan. "Our summer launch of BlueWalker 3 will complete the development phase for our company. We have also been industrializing our technology and preparing for the launch of the BlueBird satellites, with this agreement as a key step."

- The BW3 satellite is slated to launch from Cape Canaveral on a Falcon 9 vehicle. The satellite has an aperture of 693 square feet (64 m2) and is designed to communicate directly with cell phones via 3GPP standard frequencies.

- The BlueBird satellites are designed to be compatible with the Falcon 9 vehicle, as well as other existing and planned industry launch vehicles. These production satellites are designed to provide broadband commercial service directly to cell phones, without any additional hardware or software on the phone. At full capacity, AST SpaceMobile expects to be able to assemble up to six BlueBird satellites per month at its Texas manufacturing facilities, which offer a combined 185,000 of square footage.

- AST SpaceMobile's mission is to eliminate the connectivity gaps faced by today's five billion mobile subscribers moving in and out of coverage zones, and bring cellular broadband to approximately half of the world's population who remain unconnected. Partners in this effort are leading global wireless infrastructure companies, including Rakuten Mobile, Vodafone and American Tower.

• September 24, 2021: At AST SpaceMobile, we don't just believe in a brighter future, we are working hard to deliver one — to as many people as possible — from space. 8)

Figure 3: Abel Avellan Chairman, founder and Chief Executive Officer, AST SpaceMobile (image credit: AST SpaceMobile)
Figure 3: Abel Avellan Chairman, founder and Chief Executive Officer, AST SpaceMobile (image credit: AST SpaceMobile)

- It's a topic I look forward to discussing with Rakuten Mobile's Nobuyuki Uchida at Rakuten Optimism 2021 on October 13. The session, titled Connecting the Unconnected: Achieving 100% Coverage from Space, will explore how AST SpaceMobile and Rakuten are collaborating to transform mobile communications and reduce digital inequality in the process.

A space-based cellular network for everyone, everywhere

- Each day, more essential resources and systems migrate onto our smartphones, ranging from education and work to healthcare and public safety. These ongoing advancements boost economies, improve quality of life and save lives.

- Despite these digital advancements, and over five billion mobile devices in usage, connectivity is imperfect and people move in and out of cellular broadband coverage as they live, work and travel. What's more, about half of humanity lacks cellular broadband service, either because people fall into a "coverage gap," where there's no connectivity at all, or a "usage gap," where affordability and other factors create barriers to getting online.

- To help close both gaps and connect the unconnected all over the world, we are developing the world's first space-based cellular broadband network. It will be accessible by unmodified, standard mobile phones, so there will be no need for any app, expensive satellite dish, or custom hardware. SpaceMobile is designed to allow end users to connect using the device they already have in their pocket.

Tackling digital disparities

- The key to making our satellite network function is not only our extensive IP portfolio — more than 1,200 patent and patent-pending claims and growing — but also our partners. We're working side-by-side with Rakuten, in addition to other innovative telecommunications companies like Vodafone and American Tower, to develop a network for cellular access to billions of people spread across vast regions, including Africa, India and Indonesia. Additionally, we have entered into agreements and understandings with mobile network operators around the world, collectively covering approximately 1.5 billion cellular subscribers.

- Consider that in Sub-Saharan Africa, which comprises an area of 9.2 million square miles — more than twice as large as the United States — around 46% of people have a mobile subscription. For a population of 1.14 billion, this means more than 600 million people in the region lack access to an array of digital platforms that deliver meaningful benefits, spanning medical and healthcare services, learning and training, and participation in commerce and global trade.

- Such problems are not confined to developing nations and emerging markets, though. Countries with more robust infrastructure, including the U.S. and Japan, are also deeply affected by a lack of cellular broadband. Key geographic regions of developed nations lack coverage, leading to digital disparities. In Japan, for instance, it is very difficult and costly to provide cellular service to rural and mountainous regions. This leaves many families without access to amenities that the rest of the nation finds essential.

Figure 4: Abel Avellan is Chairman, founder and CEO of AST SpaceMobile (image credit: AST SpaceMobile)
Figure 4: Abel Avellan is Chairman, founder and CEO of AST SpaceMobile (image credit: AST SpaceMobile)

- SpaceMobile stands to accelerate our customers' efforts to resolve serious issues exacerbated by lack of connectivity. We plan to begin initial service after launching our BlueBird production satellites, then expand SpaceMobile to the rest of the globe with a total of 168 satellites. By leveraging our flexible wholesale model, we believe our mobile network operator customers could dramatically expand mobile service and help close both coverage and usage gaps — ensuring anyone can get connected and whole societies can take advantage of viable paths for meaningful advancement.

Democratizing mobile connectivity globally: An optimistic outlook

- Our network might also play a pivotal role in democratizing mobile connectivity globally and help billions realize the benefits of a connected society. Democratizing mobile connectivity could potentially enhance collaborations like the one Rakuten has with Asia Africa Investment & Consulting Pte. Ltd. (AAIC), a group that supports African startups poised to deliver innovative solutions that help local economies to more quickly and efficiently pursue higher stages of development. For example, there's an ambulance app in Nairobi that uses GPS to determine the fastest route to respond to an emergency call; blood ordering software in Nigeria aims to alleviate chronic blood shortages for hospitals; and a digital healthcare platform that aims to de-stigmatize mental illness across Africa and encourage treatment.

- More broadly, the implications of opening up access to telemedicine and delivering information about treating sickness and disease has the potential to save untold numbers of lives. Billions of unconnected people could also more fully participate in global society in ways that weren't possible before, and the convenience to those who already enjoy the benefits of cellular broadband would allow them more complete utilization.

- The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has said that "broadband has gone from being a luxury to a necessity for full participation in our economy and society." We couldn't agree more, which is why we're working hard every day to realize a space-based cellular network for everyone, everywhere.

 


1) "NanoAvionics will Build and Launch Three Low-Earth-Orbit Satellites for AST & Science in 2019-2020," NanoAvionics News, 1 February 2019, URL: https://nanoavionics.com/news/nanoavionics-will-build-and-launch-three-low-earth-orbit-satellites-for-ast-science-in-2019-2020/

2) "AST & Science Announces Successful Launch of Its First Satellite," AST & Science, 23 April 2019, URL: https://ast-science.com/2019/04/23/successful-launch-of-first-satellite/

3) "AST SpaceMobile Announces Multi-Launch Agreement With SpaceX for Planned Direct-to-Cell Phone Connectivity," Businesswire, 9 March 2022, URL: https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20220309005369/en/AST-SpaceMobile-Announces-Multi-Launch-Agreement-With-SpaceX-for-Planned-Direct-to-Cell-Phone-Connectivity

4) Jason Rainbow, "Operational AST SpaceMobile satellites could proceed without prototype," SpaceNews, 17 May 2022, URL: https://spacenews.com/operational-ast-spacemobile-satellites-could-proceed-without-prototype/

5) Jason Rainbow, "AST SpaceMobile licensed to connect test satellite to US cellular phones," SpaceNews, 3 May 2022, URL: https://spacenews.com/ast-spacemobile-licensed-to-connect-test-satellite-to-us-cellular-phones/

6) "FCC Grants Experimental License to AST SpaceMobile for BlueWalker 3 Satellite Direct-to-Cell Phone Connectivity," AST SpaceMobile, 2 May 2022, URL: https://ast-science.com/2022/05/02/fcc-grants-experimental-license-for-bluewalker-3-satellite/

7) "AST SpaceMobile Announces Multi-Launch Agreement With SpaceX for Planned Direct-to-Cell Phone Connectivity," Businesswire News, 9 March 2022, URL: https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20220309005369/en/AST-SpaceMobile-Announces-Multi-Launch-Agreement-With-SpaceX-for-Planned-Direct-to-Cell-Phone-Connectivity

8) "From space to your smartphone: AST SpaceMobile's mission to help connect billions to cellular broadband," Rakuten.Today, 24 September 2021, URL: https://rakuten.today/blog/ast-spacemobiles-mission-to-help-connect-billions.html
 


The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (eoportal@symbios.space).

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