AT&T formalizes deal for space-based cellular service on unmodified mobiles

AST still only has a single test satellite in orbit, so don't hold your breath

Not to be outdone by Starlink and T-Mobile, AT&T and AST SpaceMobile have finalized a deal to eventually bring a space-based connectivity option to AT&T, too. 

AT&T said the definitive commercial agreement between the pair means AST will provide a space-based broadband network for unmodified cell phones until 2030, though it's not clear when service will come online. 

AT&T and Google invested $155 million into AST in January and the pair were linked last year when Vodafone announced it had made the first space-based 5G phone call using an unmodified handset when it called AST's BlueWalker 3 test satellite last September. AT&T said in a press release that the pair have been in discussions about providing satellite services since 2018. 

The announcement comes as SpaceX's Starlink service and cellular carrier T-Mobile have also partnered to deliver cellular service to unmodified devices from space to Earth. While Vodafone beat T-Mobile to the punch with its first satellite phone call, Starlink and the uncarrier demonstrated a two-way text conversation using a Starlink Direct-to-Cell (DTC) equipped satellite earlier this year. 

Starlink said that DTC voice service that will work with all LTE-capable and newer devices will be available sometime this year (texting and IoT device support in 2025), and while it's fair to take any such proclamation with a grain of salt (especially given the regulatory hurdles that need to be jumped to get such a service okayed with the government) SpaceX is still well ahead of AST when it comes to having a satellite constellation in orbit. 

SpaceX reportedly has somewhere near 40 DTC-capable satellites in orbit. AST, whose satellite network is dedicated solely to providing cellular service, has just the one: BlueWalker 3.

According to the joint press release put out by AST and AT&T, AST plans to launch five satellites into orbit sometime this summer. Those five satellites "will help enable commercial service that was previously demonstrated," they said. 

Help, maybe - but get the service up and running? Well, sort of. 

An AST spokesperson told us in an email that the five satellites will be able to provide "non continuous broadband," including 5G connectivity, to commercial customers for "certain uses," though we weren't told what those uses would be.


BlueWalker 3: Yeah, it's big. - Click to enlarge

And that's five incredibly big satellites, mind you. If they end up anything like BlueWalker 3, a 693 square-foot behemoth, they'll be massive, and possibly the brightest things in the night sky, causing more trouble for astronomers. 

As for what it'll take to get continuous service up and running, AST tells us that will require somewhere between 45 and 60 satellites. We asked about future launch plans, but were only told it hopes to build up to six-satellite-per-month launch cadence at its Texas facility "in 2025." BlueWalker 3 launched from Florida.

AT&T, for its part, told us that it's working toward making the service commercially available, but didn't have a date to share. ®

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