• Chairman Abel Avellan says six‑month interconnection and testing programme will follow launch of BlueWalker 3 prototype.
  • Lift-off of giant spacecraft may see slight slippage.
  • US startup adds more MNO partners to go‑to‑market ahead of 2023 debut.

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SpaceMobile lines up 2022 trials with Vodacom, other MNO allies

Source: Pixabay / PIRO4D

AST SpaceMobile, the Vodafone‑ and Rakuten‑backed satcomms startup, indicated it is on course to enter trials with its network operator partners next year, following the launch of its next prototype satellite.

Chairman & Chief Executive Abel Avellan said the business was making “significant progress” on production of the BlueWalker 3 spacecraft, whose deployment aims to validate its promise of delivering mobile broadband connectivity direct to smartphone users when terrestrial networks aren’t up to the job.

The giant satellite is currently scheduled to lift-off from Cape Canaveral in March 2022–April 2022, although SpaceMobile has an option to shift the timing in its agreement with launch provider SpaceX — and Avellan indicated it was “likely” to take this up, with the aim of rebooking a slot within one month of the original window. “We want to make sure that we have fully completed our test programme for BlueWalker 3 before we go to the launch site”, he stressed.

After putting the satellite into its low‑earth orbit slot, and verifying everything is working properly, SpaceMobile plans to enter a six‑month integration and testing programme with its MNO launch partners, including Vodacom Group.

“ After the deployment is exercised and recorded by the cameras on board, we will be doing network integration testing with our network operators. The first thing will be to calibrate the array to transmit to the ground, and then interconnect to our operators in the USA, Europe, Japan, [and] Africa over a period [of] approximately six months, not only to interconnect our network to theirs, but also to test the service for voice, text, data, and high‑speed connectivity at 4G and 5G speed. ”

— Avellan.

SpaceMobile is targeting a commercial launch of its service in 2023, with Vodafone in line to support the move in some initial target markets such as Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, and Tanzania. The Group was an early investor in SpaceMobile, and has already been testing interoperability of its early prototypes with mobile handsets. Luke Ibbetson, Head of Research & Development and Technology Strategy at Vodafone, sits on the SpaceMobile Board of Directors.

2023 vision

Avellan was speaking during SpaceMobile’s financial update for the quarter to 30 September (Q3 FY21) — which, owing to the startup’s current lack of a revenue stream, focused more on operational than financial affairs.

His comments came with the business ramping up its manufacturing capacity towards a six satellite‑per month output target from “mid‑2023”, helped by a new Midland, Texas‑based “extension facility” that Avellan said was now “under contract”.

The new production centre, which Avellan described as a “big, big deal” for SpaceMobile, will add to its existing site in the city, about two miles away. Both facilities will be connected by a train line, according to Avellan. The new facility will be “highly automated”, he added.

The provider plans to turn its attention to manufacturing its official line of spacecraft, branded BlueBird, once it has completed integration and testing of BlueWalker 3. It eventually aims to build out a constellation of about 168 satellites, giving it “global” coverage.

Beyond the new factory, SpaceMobile said it had signed a lease for what will become its Maryland Technology Center, which will be its network and satellite operations hub.

Elsewhere, during the three months, the company:

  • Recorded operating expenses of $23.1m (£17.2m/€20.4m) — down from $25.1m in Q2, following a drop in R&D costs.
  • Ended the quarter with cash of $360.4m, generated from a SPAC‑based listing earlier this year, and prior investments from the likes of Vodafone Ventures, American Tower, and Rakuten.
  • Increased headcount to 509, from 454 at 30 June, including 301 full‑time employees.

The money bit

Commercially, SpaceMobile’s plan was said to be progressing, with 23 MNOs now signed up to offer its service, up from 20 at 30 June. The latest trio to come on board include Vodacom arch‑rival MTN Group, as well as Somcable in Somaliland and YTL Communications (Malaysia).

The Q3 session saw Scott Wisniewski, SpaceMobile’s Chief Strategy Officer, give out a few more snippets on how its MNO agreements will end up working in practice.

The provider has previously indicated it will operate with MNOs on a joint go‑to‑market basis, with a revenue‑share business model. End customers will be able to activate the service via text message.

A “framework” of packages, which is now being discussed with MNOs, include:

  • Day Passes that are pushed out to end users when they venture outside the reach of their MNO’s own network footprint.
  • Fixed‑rate monthly add‑on tariffs for MNO customers. Different packages will be marketed to consumers and “power users”, and will automatically connect their phones to the SpaceMobile network when mobile signal is lost.
  • SpaceMobile plans that are “standalone but will still be sold through MNOs — reflecting the vendor’s emphasis on avoiding competition with its partner operators.
  • Engagements on emergency connectivity delivery following natural disasters and other use‑cases.

We have a lot of flexibility on how to monetise our service”, said Wisniewski.