AT&T Goes Up Against T-Mobile, Starlink With AST SpaceMobile Satellite Deal

AT&T has struck a deal to bring satellite internet connectivity to phones through AST SpaceMobile, a potential rival to SpaceX’s Starlink. AT&T says the commercial agreement will last until 2030. The goal is “to provide a space-based broadband network to everyday cell phones,” a spokesperson tells PCMag, meaning customers can receive a cellular signal in remote areas where traditional cell towers are few and far between. All they’ll need to do is ensure their phone has a clear view of the sky. AT&T has been working with Texas-based AST SpaceMobile since 2018 on the technology, which involves using satellites in space as orbiting cell towers. In January, AT&T was one of several companies (including Google) to invest $110 million in AST. In addition, the carrier created a commercial starring actor Ben Stiller to showcase AST’s technology.

In today’s announcement, AT&T notes that “previously, the companies were working together under a Memorandum of Understanding,” which is usually nonbinding. Hence, the new commercial deal suggests AT&T is confident AST can deliver fast and reliable satellite internet service to consumer smartphones — even though it hasn’t launched a production satellite. AST has only launched one prototype satellite; in tests last year, it delivered download rates at 14Mbps and powered a 5G voice call. Following a supply chain-related delay, the company is now preparing to launch its first batch of “BlueBird” production satellites later this year, possibly in Q3. 

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In Wednesday’s announcement, AT&T adds: “This summer, AST SpaceMobile plans to deliver its first commercial satellites to Cape Canaveral for launch into low Earth orbit. These initial five satellites will help enable commercial service that was previously demonstrated with several key milestones.” Still, AST needs to launch 45 to 60 BlueBird satellites before it can offer continuous coverage in the US, although in an earnings call, the company said it’ll still be able to offer “non-continuous coverage” across 5,600 cells in the country.

(AST SpaceMobile)

SpaceX has reached a similar agreement with T-Mobile to provide satellite connectivity to unmodified smartphones. It plans on launching the cellular Starlink service later this year, first to power text messaging before enabling data and voice calls in 2025. SpaceX appears to have already launched 38 “direct to cell” satellites to power the service, with potentially hundreds of more to come.

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