AT&T appears to be getting serious about a potential satellite cellphone that it demonstrated with satellite operator AST SpaceMobile last month. In a filing with the FCC, AT&T indicated its intent to lease spectrum in the 700 MHz and 850 MHz blocks in the U.S. to AST.

AT&T and AST also have asked the FCC to waive certain requirements normally associated with satellite phone service. The companies argue that the requirements should not pertain to the service they are planning, which will enable satellite communications using an unmodified cellphone.

The FCC uses the term “supplemental coverage from space,” or SCS, to describe the service that AT&T and AST are planning. While satellite voice service traditionally has required special satellite phones, the AT&T/AST offering would not require a special device.

Instead, the cellphone would communicate via satellite in situations where cellular service is not available – a capability that AT&T and AST demonstrated last month using spectrum licensed to AT&T. In an email exchange with Telecompetitor, an AT&T spokesperson confirmed that the companies used an experimental license to complete the test calls.

According to the spokesperson, the waivers that AT&T and AST are requesting “are, for the most part, waivers of rules that apply to the use of AT&T’s licensed spectrum, which are geared to terrestrial deployments.”

The spokesperson noted, for example, that typically, cell site height and transmit power are limited.

“A space-based cell site will need a waiver of the height restrictions and will need more power to transmit from space to earth,” the spokesperson explained.

Another waiver that AT&T and AST are requesting pertains to earth stations, which are used in traditional satellite service, but won’t be part of the AT&T and AST offering – at least not in their usual form.

As the spokesperson explained, an earth station is defined as “a radiofrequency device on the Earth’s surface that’s ‘intended for communication’ with a satellite (or other earth stations via a reflecting satellite.)”

Using that definition, the smartphone involved in the AT&T/AST service could be considered an earth station. Accordingly, “we’re requesting a waiver to existing rules on earth stations; we believe requiring earth station licenses for smartphones and other mobile devices would be unnecessary and burdensome,” the spokesperson noted.

It’s too soon to say how long the FCC will need to rule on the waiver request, the spokesperson said. She added, though, that the companies hope to have approvals before AST launches five more satellites in early 2024.

Information about AT&T’s and AST’s development work involving SCS service can be found in this previous Telecompetitor post.

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