Rakuten and Vodafone invest in $128m US mobile satellite

Rakuten and Vodafone invest in $128m US mobile satellite venture

06 March 2020 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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Internet services company Rakuten and mobile operator Vodafone have invested in a satellite company that promises to deliver 4G from space.

Texas-based AST & Science says the investment brings the total capital raised by the company to $128 million. Other investors include American Tower and Samsung Next, the Korean company’s investment arm.

AST & Science will operate under the brand SpaceMobile, with low-orbit satellites that the company says will connect directly to smartphones.

Abel Avellan, AST & Science chairman and CEO, said: “SpaceMobile will be particularly transformative to the growing US$1 trillion annual global mobile market because it will eliminate the coverage gaps faced by today’s five billion mobile subscribers moving in and out of connectivity every day.”

Vodafone group CEO Nick Read, said: “We believe SpaceMobile is uniquely placed to provide universal mobile coverage, further enhancing our leading network across Europe and Africa – especially in rural areas and during a natural or humanitarian disaster – for customers on their existing smartphones.”

Avellan added: “It will also help the world’s most under-served communities to access the latest mobile services much sooner than predicted, helping more people to access the digital economy.”

AST & Space launched its first nano-satellite on an Indian rocket (pictured) in April 2019, and the company’s Texas factory will be able to make “up to 100,000 satellite modules a year”, Avellan said after the launch.

AST & Science says it will initially offer 4G services to partner networks globally, with 5G delivered in the future. “The SpaceMobile network will enable seamless roaming to and from terrestrial cellular networks at comparable data rates without any need for specialised satellite hardware,” said the company.

“At Vodafone we want to ensure everyone benefits from a digital society – that no-one is left behind,” said Read.

Mickey Mikitani, chairman and CEO of Rakuten, said: “Our investment is part of our broader strategy to become a leading mobile network operator in Japan and a global solution provider to markets around the world. Rakuten’s strategic investment with AST & Science has the potential to support our efforts to connect users across Japan through mobile innovation, expanding national coverage from metropolitan to remote areas and bolstering the network in times of natural disaster.”

AST & Science is claiming that its satellites will be able to provide indoor coverage. It is vague about service dates, saying no more than “in the next few years”.