Vodafone and Rakuten have become lead investors in a venture that aims to extend mobile coverage by using a space-based mobile network. AST & Science's space-based network, dubbed SpaceMobile, allows Earth-dwellers to connect to its network using standard smartphones and is facilitated by low-Earth-orbit (LEO), low-latency satellites. AST & Science has an exclusive portfolio of patents and IP for ground and space technology based networking.
Initially SpaceMobile will offer 4G services to partners around the globe. The key proposition is to enable seamless roaming to and from terrestrial cellular networks at comparable data rates without any need for specialized satellite hardware. It is estimated that there are 5 billion potential users living in the gaps of mobile coverage around the world.
Vodafone is more than a cash-rich investor in the venture. As a strategic partner Vodafone will "contribute technical, operational and regulatory expertise in support of the global deployment of SpaceMobile," says AST & Science. Vodafone's CEO, Nick Read, added that he saw SpaceMobile as a unique project capable of providing universal mobile coverage and extending Vodafone's reach in Europe and Africa - particularly in rural areas.
UK residents might know Rakuten best as a tech etailer which dabbles in media streaming (Rakuten TV) but it is a leading mobile network operator in Japan - hence this investment. Rakuten highlighted the potential of SpaceMobile in times of natural disaster.
SpaceMobile technology was successfully tested using the BlueWalker 1 satellite, launched in April 2019 (pictured top), and further tests and investments need to be done before SpaceMobile becomes a commercial offering - this will happen "in the next few years".