Trial opens door to space-based smartphone calls

A joint US-Japan partnership has announced the successful completion of satellite-based voice calls, a development that could improve access to cell phone coverage in out of the way places.

US satellite company AST SpaceMobile and Japanese mobile service provider Rakuten completed the two-way calls directly to unmodified smartphones using AST SpaceMobile’s BlueWalker 3 (BW3) satellite.

The first voice call was made from AST’s headquarters in Midland, Texas to Rakuten in Japan over AT&T spectrum last month, according to a report in Vanilla Plus.

The initial test calls relied on AST SpaceMobile’s patented system and architecture, and were completed using unmodified smartphones.

The calls demonstrated the viability of AST SpaceMobile’s BW3 satellite, the commercial communications array deployed in low Earth orbit. AST said it was an important step to providing space-based 2G, 3G, 4G LTE and 5G cellular broadband globally.

Engineers from Rakuten, Vodafone and AT&T participated in the preparation and testing of the voice calls with BW3. “Achieving what many once considered impossible, we have reached the most significant milestone to date in our quest to deliver global cellular broadband from space,” said Abel Avellan, chairman and chief executive officer of AST SpaceMobile.

The space-based tests come after Rakuten and AST formed a strategic partnership in 2020 aimed at developing the technology to deliver a space-based mobile service using low earth orbit satellites and Rakuten Mobile spectrum in Japan.

According to the companies, the joint project’s vision for the service is to offer voice calls and web browsing in addition to text messaging on unmodified standard smartphones and will provide coverage to areas in which it is difficult to provide connectivity with traditional technology, including mountainous regions and islands and areas affected by the natural disasters. Nearly 50 percent of the global population has no access to cell phone coverage.

Mickey Mikitani, Rakuten chairman and CEO, said: “As technological advancements like space connectivity become possible with pioneers like AST SpaceMobile, Rakuten will also progress even further along the road to democratising connectivity for all.”