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 (opens in new tab).

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 (opens in new tab). 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 (opens in new tab) 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
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace