Global connectivity has a massive effect on society in the early 21st century, similar in many respects to that caused by the steam engine in the 19th century or electrification in the 20th. Digital connectivity has become so ever-present in our daily lives that you hardly notice it. But it is easy to forget that there are countless regions around the world where the difficult geographical location significantly impacts the ability to construct digital communication networks.
Visitors to the OMR Festival were able to see how that could change at the Vodafone stand. Under the “GigaNetwork” banner, this included the presentation of the Multilayer technology from Vodafone. The high-performance solution is the result of the unique combination of 4G|LTE, 5G, IoT network technologies and Vodafone fibre-optic cables and is used to blaze a trail for digitalisation – thereby enabling data-intensive communication between people and machines, globally and in real time.
There was also room for visionary projects such as a 5G airship floating above visitors’ heads for the duration of the festival. However, Vodafone and its partner AST SpaceMobile are aiming higher with another technology that was also introduced at the OMR Festival: Satellite internet.
“A broadband connection is a human right. It is an undeniable human need.”
Space Age 2.0
The idea of satellite-supported connectivity is not a new one. Its origins can be traced back to the early days of the Space Age, around 1950. Existing satellite infrastructure has already been used in previous years to maintain connectivity in countries affected by natural disasters, thereby supporting aid efforts. And reports about satellite internet were dominating the headlines in early 2022, after the outbreak of war in Ukraine: At that time, the technology was being used to guarantee the country’s internet connection.
So, how is the satellite technology that the US-based company AST SpaceMobile intends to get market-ready in partnership with Vodafone different to existing solutions? “The basis of our technology solution is a space-based cellular broadband network, which would look and function like a cellular network for normal, commercial mobile phones and other cellular-compatible devices,” explains Scott Wisniewski, Chief Strategy Officer at AST SpaceMobile.
Aiming high thanks to innovative satellites
To enable them to receive signals from space, existing networks require support from satellite dishes or comparable technology. This means that conventional mobile phones can only use them with corresponding ground-based infrastructure. And that is exactly what AST SpaceMobile aims to change: “The satellites we are planning for low-Earth orbit, known as BlueBirds, are being designed to use the cellular spectrum already licensed by cellular network operators and connect directly to the more than 5.3 billion mobile phones currently in use,” says Wisniewski.
AST SpaceMobile had to rethink existing technologies to make this vision a reality. The company has registered more than 2,300 patent and patent-pending claims for the development of its project. AST SpaceMobile plans to form a global cellular-broadband network in orbit with BlueBird satellites. Each satellite would function as a type of large antenna to both send and receive data to phones on the ground. Founder and CEO Abel Avellan envisions such a network would enable cellular broadband communications to not only close coverage gaps in existing markets, but also expand service to underserved and unserved regions.
“We firmly believe that AST SpaceMobile is in a unique position to provide all-encompassing cellular communications coverage.”
Bringing connectivity to the unconnected
According to GSMA data, about half of humanity is not connected to cellular broadband, including about 450 million people who have no coverage whatsoever.
Wisniewski says AST SpaceMobile intends to help bring service to such areas. “Our engineers and space scientists are on a mission to eliminate the connectivity gaps faced by billions of mobile subscribers and finally bring broadband to the billions who remain unconnected,” he explains.
The start-up aims to launch the first commercial BlueBird satellites in 2023, with more to follow. But the company will face its first major hurdle in early to mid-September, when the BlueWalker 3 test satellite is scheduled to launch on a Falcon 9 rocket built by the aerospace company SpaceX.
Vodafone as strong partner
“Vodafone has been building cellular networks for nearly 30 years, gaining comprehensive expertise and generating strong relationships all around the world,” explains Wisniewski: “We believe that the cooperation with Vodafone can help us best execute our planned SpaceMobile service.” He also sees some significant overlap as both companies are on a mission to enable a better, more inclusive, and sustainable digital future for everyone by connecting ever-wider sections of global society.
And there is no shortage of good arguments for implementing direct satellite-to-mobile device connectivity: The demand for cellular connectivity increases year over year, both in terms of throughput and coverage. Satellite technology could provide comprehensive coverage in those areas where conventional wireless networks cannot – especially in regions with extreme conditions for the construction of conventional, ground-based infrastructure.
Disaster relief from space
In addition to the potential for social development in economically underdeveloped countries and regions, the importance of digital communication networks is most commonly revealed when these are restricted by external influences. Natural disasters or armed conflicts often lead to the collapse of connectivity in affected areas, with a host of negative consequences. Start-ups like AST SpaceMobile could help to provide a sustainable answer to such problems.
The project still has some challenges to address, but anyone who had a chat with the people behind it at the OMR Festival will have quickly noticed that they firmly believe in their vision.
Vodafone and AST Space Mobile