AT&T phone home? Well, sort of. AST SpaceMobile, the cellular satellite company backed by the mobile carrier, placed a satellite call over 5G. It’s the “first ever” 5G connection between an unmodified smartphone and a space satellite.
On September 8, AST SpaceMobile used a Samsung Galaxy S22 smartphone in a wireless dead zone in Maui, Hawaii, to call a Vodafone engineer in Madrid, Spain. Between AT&T’s 5G spectrum, Nokia’s network core and AST SpaceMobile’s low Earth orbit satellite, BlueWalker 3, the cell signal reached its destination.
This is a huge step forward for global connectivity. Being able to connect a low Earth orbit satellite to regular, everyday smartphones could potentially eliminate the notion of dead zones. This means reliable, quality connectivity in remote areas, perhaps for the first time, which would be a boon for emergency services.
The 5G home internet competition is fierce and interest in satellite connectivity is growing. T-Mobile and Space X’s Starlink announced a 5G partnership in August. Starlink has over 5,000 internet satellites in orbit with more planned to launch in the near future. Amazon plans to launch a low-Earth orbit satellite constellation, currently codenamed Project Kuiper, and Vodafone wants to use Project Kuiper’s high-bandwidth, low-latency network to improve connectivity services in Africa and Europe, two areas where the company has high concentrations of customers.
AST SpaceMobile plans to launch five commercial BlueBird satellites in the first quarter of 2024.
“Since the launch of BlueWalker 3, we have achieved full compatibility with phones made by all major manufacturers and support for 2G, 4G LTE, and now 5G,” Abel Avellan, AST SpaceMobile CEO said in a statement. “Making the first successful 5G cellular broadband connections from space directly to mobile phones is yet another significant advancement in telecommunications AST SpaceMobile has pioneered. We are more confident than ever that space-based cellular broadband can help transform internet connectivity across the globe by filling in gaps and connecting the unconnected.”
In the last few months AST SpaceMobile has made multiple historic accomplishments. In April, the organization completed the first-ever space-based voice call with regular smartphones. In June, AST SpaceMobile said the BlueWalker 3 reached initial download speeds above 10 Mbps. Since then the testing program has yielded more successful voice calls and 4G video calls as well as file downloads and text messages.
“These moments are extraordinary milestones in telecommunications history,” AT&T Network Head Chris Sambar said in a statement. “These first-of-a-kind innovations would not be possible without ecosystem-wide collaboration. We’re all working together to achieve the shared vision of space-based connectivity for consumers, businesses and first responders all around the globe.”
“Vodafone is striving to close the mobile usage gap for millions of people across Europe and Africa,” Margherita Della Valle, Vodafone Group Chief Executive, said. “By making the world’s first space-based 5G call to Europe, we have taken another important step in realizing that ambition. We’re excited to be at the forefront of space technology through our partnership with AST SpaceMobile.”
“We congratulate AST SpaceMobile on their latest incredible achievement in completing a 5G voice call from space,” Tommi Uitto, President of Mobile Networks at Nokia said in a statement. “While we are of course proud that our AirScale portfolio is playing a key role in underpinning these networks, we must not lose sight of the bigger picture that space-based cellular broadband can provide crucial connectivity to underserved communities around the world.”
AST SpaceMobile shared a video memorializing the 5G connection and other milestones on YouTube: