Vodafone claims first space-based 5G phone call – no modifications needed

The roaming charges must be out of this world

Vodafone is claiming to have made the world's first space-based 5G call placed using an unmodified handset, thanks to a test satellite operated by AST SpaceMobile.

Interest in delivering services to mobile phones from orbiting satellites has been growing since Apple unveiled its Emergency SOS feature for the iPhone that allows users to text for help even when there is no terrestrial network coverage.

However, the BlueWalker 3 satellite operated by AST SpaceMobile is specifically designed to provide 4G and 5G connectivity, allowing for data services and internet voice calls, which is what happened in this case.

According to Vodafone, the 5G call was made on September 8 from Maui, Hawaii, to a Vodafone engineer in Madrid, Spain, from an unmodified Samsung Galaxy S22 smartphone, using the WhatsApp voice and messaging app.

A cynic might therefore argue that it was AST SpaceMobile that made this first space-based 5G call possible rather than Vodafone. We couldn't possibly comment. Vodafone is, however, an investor in AST SpaceMobile, along with Rakuten Mobile in Japan and AT&T in the US.

But that didn't stop Vodafone Group Chief Executive Margherita Della Valle from hailing it as an important step in delivering connectivity to more users.

"Vodafone is striving to close the mobile usage gap for millions of people across Europe and Africa. By making the world's first space-based 5G call to Europe, we have taken another important step in realizing that ambition," she said in a statement.

The move follows on from AST SpaceMobile claiming the first two-way voice call directly to everyday unmodified smartphones via the BlueWalker 3 in April. The call in that instance was made from Midland in Texas to Rakuten in Japan using 4G.

In a separate test, AST Space Mobile said it achieved a download rate of nearly 14Mbps in a broadband data session using the BlueWalker 3 satellite. This demonstrates the potential of the technology to connect people in remote regions to the internet for the first time using existing mobile phones, the company claimed.

BlueWalker 3 is still just a test vehicle, however, and is paving the way for AST SpaceMobile's plans to launch five commercial BlueBird satellites in the first quarter of 2024.

Vodafone said that AST SpaceMobile's terrestrial infrastructure in Spain will play a key role, including a control center for the management of customer traffic, which will cover remote land-based areas within Europe and the Mediterranean.

A Vodafone spokesperson told us that it intends to offer commercial services using AST SpaceMobile satellites in future, but said it is too early to name any definitive date for when this will be available as the timing is dependent on AST SpaceMobile successfully deploying its satellite constellation – something that is not without risk, as Viasat knows full well.

These services should allow broadband connections using any standard 5G smartphone, Vodafone told us. The telecoms giant also said it has an exclusivity arrangement with AST SpaceMobile for services covering Europe and Africa.

Vodafone is backing more than one horse in the race. It is also involved with Amazon's Project Kuiper to extend 4G and 5G services to more regions in Europe and Africa via satellites, although it has yet to launch any.

In the US, T-Mobile has hooked up with Elon Musk's SpaceX to link its terrestrial wireless network with the Starlink low Earth orbit satellite constellation. The pair aim to initially support text messaging covering the US, with a plan to extend support to voice and data coverage afterwards.

However, AST SpaceMobile may have a technical advantage here, as Gartner VP Analyst Bill Ray previously explained to us.

"SpaceMobile's point of differentiation is its huge antenna, which makes it capable of putting down a small spot beam which limits interference. Starlink's v2 satellites have a tiny antenna, by comparison, which means bigger spot footprints and more potential for interference," Ray said.

Concerns over potential interference with existing terrestrial wireless services led to AT&T filing a petition with the US Federal Communications Commission earlier this year to block T-Mobile US from operating its satellite-based service. ®

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