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AST SpaceMobile scores US license to connect satellite directly to cell phones

A new experimental cell phone satellite service should debut this year.
A new experimental cell phone satellite service should debut this year. (Image credit: NASA)

A startup that wants to provide satellite service directly to your cell phone just took a big step toward achieving that goal.

AST SpaceMobile received an experimental license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allowing for U.S.-based testing of the BlueWalker 3 satellite, the Texas-based company announced on Monday (May 2).

"The license covers BlueWalker 3 space-to-ground testing in the United States using 3GPP low-band cellular frequencies and Q/V-band frequencies, subject to certain restrictions," AST SpaceMobile said in a statement.

The announcement comes ahead of the expected summer 2022 launch of BlueWalker 3, which is meant to demonstrate the feasibility of the company's planned constellation of BlueBird satellites.

The goal of the test service is to connect BlueWalker-3 directly with unmodified 2G, 4G and 5G phones from hundreds of miles away, according to SpaceNews. The first satellite, BlueWalker-1, launched in 2019 for 4G validation.

Related: Satellite megaconstellations becoming the new light pollution

AST SpaceMobile plans to launch its test satellite aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, pictured here launching a batch of Starlink satellites.

AST SpaceMobile plans to launch its test satellite aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, pictured here launching a batch of Starlink satellites. (Image credit: SpaceX)

"In addition to FCC approval for operating satellite spectrum, the company needs permission from the regulator's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau to use frequencies traditionally used by terrestrial mobile network operators," SpaceNews said in the report.

BlueWalker-3 will go to space as part of a multi-launch agreement announced in March with SpaceX, which has a competing satellite service for rural broadband areas known as Starlink. The SpaceX agreement also includes "the launch of the first BlueBird satellite and ... a framework for future launches," AST SpaceMobile said at the time.

AST SpaceMobile's market access licenses so far cover Nigeria and five other countries in Africa and Asia, the company told SpaceNews, although it is working in the U.S. and other jurisdictions to secure regulatory approval. For example, the company inked a deal with the Philippines' Globe Telecom on April 28.

The company had aimed to provide commercial service by 2023, but newer projections now say 2024 following satellite manufacturing and launch delays, according to SpaceNews.

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.