AT&T said today that it successfully demonstrated cellphone voice calls via satellite using an unmodified cellphone – an accomplishment the company said is a first. The demonstration relied on low earth orbit (LEO) satellites operated by AST SpaceMobile. The technology is also expected to support data connectivity.
“This is a future solution which is designed to integrate with our wireless network and when needed to fill coverage gaps in remote and otherwise off-grid locations by connecting with our customers’ existing devices using LTE and 5G broadband spectrum,” an AT&T spokesperson told Telecompetitor.
“It will also provide enhanced connectivity for first responders, businesses and consumers where they live, work and play – and all without requiring special equipment, just an existing, everyday cellphone or device.”
The breakthrough demo call, which used AT&T spectrum and Samsung Galaxy S22 smartphones, was made from the Midland, TX area to another provider — Rakuten in Japan. AST is partially owned by Rakuten and by Vodafone. Engineers from both of those companies and AT&T were involved in the test calls.
American Tower is another AST part owner.
AT&T Satellite Connectivity
The capability that AT&T demonstrated is different from an emergency satellite communications capability that Apple offers on the iPhone 14 because the Apple offering does not use cellular spectrum.
Using cellular spectrum will enable communication beyond just text and images, the AT&T spokesperson said. It will support “coverage that can only be provided by a real broadband connection delivering voice, text, data and video services.”
T-Mobile and SpaceX have announced a deal similar to the one between AT&T and AST that will rely on cellular spectrum but T-Mobile and SpaceX have not yet announced that they have completed a voice call using the technology.
AST Weighs In
AST will always go to market with a wireless provider, a spokesperson for the company said.
According to the spokesperson, “AST has approximately 40 agreements and understandings with carriers globally with potential access to their over two billion subscribers. AST operates by sharing existing spectrum in places where the carrier is not using it.
“The service is an add-on to the existing package, and the carrier and AST split the additional revenue tied to the offering. AST delivers the network, and the carrier brings the spectrum and subscribers.”
The plan is for subscriber offerings to be sized and priced by market in coordination with AST’s customer, the carrier. Connectivity options are expected to include day passes and monthly subscriptions.
AST’s service allows provider partners to better monetize their existing spectrum and subscriber base. In addition, it improves the providers’ existing networks by expanding coverage.
According to a press release, almost half of the world’s population lacks cellular broadband.
Carl Weinschenk contributed to this report