AST SpaceMobile is looking to provide mobile broadband coverage across the world. To get there, the route is not through cell phone towers, but through satellites orbiting Earth.
In April, the four-year-old company went public on the NASDAQ exchange through a SPAC merger with New Providence Acquisition Corp., one in a series of so-called “blank check” companies that have formed to take companies public and the second with College Park ties recently. In doing so, it raised $462 million.
As it builds for the globe, and beyond, the company has a base in Maryland. It has about two dozen employees working in the state, centered on a recently renovated space with labs and offices in the Discovery District, adjacent to the University of Maryland College Park. While AST’s headquarters is in Midland, Texas, the company has worked with the university over the last several years to build up a base of talent, and technology development. CEO Abel Avellan said the links with academia are key to the company’s vision to “use science and technology to make the world a better place.”
“From the very beginning, I wanted to work with a leading university to cultivate top engineering talent and help AST SpaceMobile develop the world’s first space-based cellular broadband network,” he said. “That’s why we partnered with the University of Maryland in College Park and why Dr. Ray Sedwick became one of our first employees.”
Sedwick is the company’s chief scientist for space systems and director of the Space Power and Propulsion Laboratory in the Aerospace Engineering Department on the campus. He has been a professor at the university for 13 years, and started with AST in summer 2017. AST CTO Dr. Huiwen Yao has a Ph.D. from UMD, and the company is hiring graduates from mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and Sedwick’s own aerospace engineering department. The ties are a key part of the company’s development to date, and a big reason for that is the specialized skills coming out of UMD.
Ultimately, the company’s goal is to build a network that democratizes broadband coverage around the globe.
To do so, it is racing to build telecommunications infrastructure in space. The company’s satellites will provide mobile broadband service — think 2G to 5G speeds — directly to a typical mobile phone. No additional phones, ground-based satellite dishes or apps are needed for the SpaceMobile service, which is distinct from other space-based offerings in development, the company says.
“What we’re looking to do is to provide true broadband connectivity, just like you have on the ground,” Sedwick said.
There’s been a lot of talk about the digital divide over the last year, as the pandemic exposed how cities like Baltimore have tens of thousands of people who lack broadband coverage at home.
But when it comes to the global stage, there’s also a gulf in coverage that traces back to cell phones, rather than wires in the ground. More than 90% of the 4 billion-plus users who can access the web do so by using a mobile phone, while 51% of the global population lacks access to mobile broadband.
For SpaceMobile, the key to closing that gap is by extending the coverage to more areas of our planet. Ground-based networks currently only provide cellular coverage for about 10% of Earth. The company’s research indicates there are about 750 million people in countries where there’s no service offered at all, and then another 3 billion people who have voice service, but no internet connectivity. And then there are the gaps that exist when someone is out to sea, or in otherwise remote areas. Even in an area with higher connectivity, communications networks may be knocked out in the event of a disaster.
With the space-based network, SpaceMobile is aiming to eliminate connectivity gaps. Through agreements with cell phone providers, the company’s satellites will allow users to access the network when they leave the coverage of another service. They’d get a text message that activates service, rather than having to download anything else. Prices will be determined by the carriers. When it comes to the technology, what will actually be happening is that the terrestrial network “hands off” service to the company’s satellites, which are beaming thousands of cells of service to Earth. To the phone, the signal will seem like it’s coming from any other cell tower. When it would typically roam, now it will have somewhere to connect.
To deliver the service, the company is working with cellular service providers. It has partnerships with Vodafone, Rakuten and American Tower. These come in advance of initial plans to start service in 49 countries located in regions near Earth’s equator, allowing it to reach a region of 1.6 billion people. It is targeted to begin in 2023. The recent capital raise from the SPAC merger will fund this first network of 20 satellites built for countries along the equator.
Sedwick has spent his career on the fundamental science behind getting such technology to space. Now he has a chance to put that into action on a global scale.
“At the end of the day, it’s about connecting the unconnected,” he said.