AST SpaceMobile CSO details the company’s challenge to the satellite to the cell model

Scott Wisniewski, executive vice president and chief strategy officer at AST SpaceMobile. Photo: AST SpaceMobile

AST SpaceMobile It’s getting a lot of attention as it nears the launch of Bluewalker 3 this summer, a satellite designed to communicate directly with unmodified cell phones on Earth.

company Released to the public in April It recently presented the first Full year financial results. The company reported revenue of $12.4 million. Total operating expenses increased by $64.3 million to $91.6 million for 2021, compared to 2020. AST SpaceMobile said testing and integration on the BlueWalker 3 satellite is nearing completion. In addition, the company has entered into agreements and memoranda of understanding with mobile network operators (MNOs), which in total have more than 1.8 billion subscribers. The company also has more than 2,100 patent claims and patents pending.

Scott Wisniewski, the company’s executive vice president and chief strategy officer, spoke recently via satellite About AST SpaceMobile’s partnerships with mobile network operators, and the commercial opportunity for satellite-to-cell service.

Via Satellite: AST SpaceMobile has some major carriers who have signed on as service partners such as Vodafone, Rakuten and Telefonica. How do MNOs support the company in the development process?

Wisniewski: Mobile network operators are the basis of our business. They provide access to the spectrum, their customers and the $1 trillion wireless services market. A lot of the ones we’ve been talking about publicly were signed early in 2018, including Vodafone, and these agreements and understandings, support technical, regulatory and commercial issues.

This is important because they are not only potential future customers, but we are trying to reverse the cellular architecture because we want to connect to 5 billion mobile phones without hardware modifications. We need to take a lot of the functionality of the cell tower and pull it back into our satellites as well as into the center of the mobile operator, to make the service look like what a phone would see from a cell tower on Earth. In order to reverse the cellular architecture, we have been working with experts in the cellular industry.

Via Satellite: Do you have any updates on your FCC approval status for service in the US?

Wisniewski: Satellite communications and communications in general are regulated industries. We need market access in every country we plan to operate in. So far, we have announced six countries where we have full approvals. It’s good progress in the early days. Lots of other LEO satellites [Low-Earth Orbit] Operators have been teaching regulators for a while, which is great.

For the FCC, the United States is a very important market for us and we have regular and constructive meetings with them and their stakeholders. We have received many letters of support, including from members of Congress. Next up with the FCC is licensing testing in the US. There are a lot of important testing we’d like to do for the BlueWalker 3 outside of Texas and Hawaii, but we have a number of locations around the world and we’ll also be testing there. We will also need market access for a full commercial service, which is typical, and we will continue to defend our case with them. We think it’s a compelling case.

Via satellite: Are you trying to reach markets in other countries in addition to the six countries and the United States?

Wisniewski: Yeah. These are just countries that have given early approvals. Approvals usually approach commercial service, so this is a good early advance. We have discussions in many other markets.

Via Satellite: AST SpaceMobile is targeting a BlueWalker 3 launch this summer. What milestones will you see in the weeks after launch, whether with the satellite or the test campaign?

Wisniewski: The first steps with any satellite launch are basic communication checks and health and wellness checks on the satellite. This will be done in the first hours and days. We also have a camera on board to watch the posting as well. In the early days we will be looking for the satellite to unlock and do basic operations.

The purpose of our test campaign is to communicate with our mobile network operators and equipment on the ground and configure our software and other systems related to the core network. We will do so in the following months in a number of locations around the world. The BlueWalker 3 satellite will give us about five minutes of coverage in most areas around the world every day. We’ll use that in the months after launch to perform ground testing and configure our software.

Satellite: Is BlueWalker 3 for testing only, or are you going to start a commercial service with the satellite?

Wisniewski: BlueWalker 3 is an experimental satellite. This is a 700-square-foot phase array and a smaller version of our production satellites. We’ll be testing it for a while. Not intended for commercial service. The satellites that will follow, bluebirds, will be too [used for commercial service]

Via Satellite: What level of bandwidth will the BlueWalker 3 satellite provide – messages, phone calls, or full data?

Wisniewski: Our satellites are designed to carry 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G protocols. It will be 3GPP compliant to work with current phones, even though we have a lot of software and patents that go beyond the basic 3GPP protocols. It will be compatible with what users of 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G phones know and includes voice and data. With this design, we qualify under the requirements of the 5G Fund for Rural America established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). With BlueWalker 3 we didn’t talk about speeds, [but] Supporting what I just described on a test basis is within range.

The reason all this is important is because we want this to be user friendly. We want the user to be able to expand their footprint with what they do on their regular phones in a way that’s easy to adopt.

Via satellite: You mentioned the FCC’s initiative for 5G in rural America. Is this something AST SpaceMobile will aim to participate in?

Wisniewski: Yeah. Join us in the rule-making process. The FCC isn’t on a schedule for that yet, but we set out to set the rules and qualified under them.

Via Satellite: I’ve spoken to a number of people in the industry and some people are skeptical about BlueWalker 3 – either it won’t unfold, or it won’t work with phones. What would you say to skeptics who don’t think this will work?

Wisniewski: The reason for having a larger satellite is to communicate with a smartphone. Today’s mobile phone has lower signal strength and lower battery power than traditional mobile phones. By having a larger range, it allows us to push the signal to cover the distance and deliver a signal above the noise threshold. The satellite itself is about 700 square feet, the size of a college bedroom. Our production size is larger than most of the current satellites of the LEO constellation, but there are many large satellites in orbit in both LEO and LEO. [Geostationary Orbit] And many more are under development.

“Will it work?” is a great question. Why hasn’t this been done before? Our founder has said this time and time again – a person always needs to go first. We are benefiting from a revitalized effort around LEO solutions and reduced launch costs. But there are a number of business hurdles. Mobile network operators have not worked with this type of solution before, and there are a number of technical hurdles that have not been done before, such as managing signal delay. This is part of what is protected by patents and patent claims.

We’ve been encouraged by our testing on Earth and our BlueWalker 1 satellite in 2019, and so far we’ve been encouraged by our testing with our BlueWalker 3 satellite on Earth.

Satellite: Were there hurdles in the work to get mobile network operators (MNOs) on board?

Wisniewski: I don’t know that it was a huge hurdle with mobile operators, but this approach has not been taken before. Using mobile operator spectrum on a non-interference basis with revenue sharing has been an important approach to how we do things because we don’t have our own spectrum. In order to communicate with the antennas in the 5 billion mobile phones that exist today, you need to take advantage of the spectrum, and we do this on a non-interference basis. This is the core of our business approach, rethinking how we approach the cellular market from orbit. This also allowed us to simplify our business plan in many ways as our mobile operators help us with developments and benefit from their customers. These are large companies that are very strong both technically and in customer marketing, plus they are very close to the regulatory authorities in their countries. This is one of our main strengths.

Satellite: What use cases do you think will be the most impactful for end users on the ground?

Wisniewski: The investment in global wireless networks over the past 20 years has been amazing [but] We can all sympathize with imperfect wireless networks. What we want to do is extend that coverage so that it’s this alternative when you have incomplete coverage, or you don’t have coverage – which many cell phone users experience on a daily basis. It solves a major pain point in global networks. Cellular networks obviously focus on the largest population centers, which is where you get the best unit economies. But with low population density, the ground coverage goes to zero. Our use cases are perhaps strongest in those rural or underserved areas or in the developing world.

There are a lot of use cases and we plan to go to market with a number of products that we will develop with our mobile operator customers. The lite version is today’s version, where you get a text message when you’re out of coverage and access AST data for a one-time fee. Another option is a recurring monthly fee.

Our technology has a lot of other applications that we haven’t talked about at length, but other relevant markets where phone users need solutions for mobility, such as sea and air. There are a number of relevant markets where our solution can be very interesting.

Satellite: There have been rumors that future iPhones may be equipped with hardware to communicate with satellites. Is there any concern that the cellular industry could get ahead of AST SpaceMobile on this?

Wisniewski: We’re excited about all the news and excitement about architectures from satellite to cellular. Much of it focuses on delivery. But there is a growing focus on direct phone calling by a number of players. We think it underscores the feasibility of our technology solution. We’ve been in it for a long time so we feel comfortable in our position, but it’s a very big market and that’s a hard problem to solve.

We are protected by our marketing time, the amount of investment, and our partners. But in the end, this is a large market that needs a lot of services. I think customers and users will welcome the service, and I know I will. That’s why we focus on delivering real 4G and 5G service with real voice and data. There is a demand for a lot of different types of services, but the biggest demand by far will be for a true cell phone-like service – and that’s what we’re focusing on.