Signal strength: Vodafone invests in satellite firm

US-based AST & Science plans to launch a space-based satellite network that can connect directly to smartphones.

Vodafone says its investment in space-based technology will enhance the company's network across Europe and Africa, especially in rural areas and during disasters [File: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg]

Mobile operator Vodafone is backing a satellite venture that aims to broadcast a mobile broadband network from space, potentially boosting its 4G – and in the future 5G – coverage for users without the need for a specialised handset.

Vodafone said on Tuesday it had invested $25m in Texas-based satellite manufacturer AST & Science’s space-based network, becoming the lead investor alongside Japan’s Rakuten Inc.

The US firm plans to launch the world’s first low-earth-orbit, low-latency satellite network – called SpaceMobile – that is able to connect directly to a smartphone.

The network’s signal will help to fortify a partner mobile operator’s coverage, for example in rural areas or when a signal is disrupted in a crisis, with users automatically roaming from the land network to the space network.

Vodafone Chief Executive Nick Read said SpaceMobile would further enhance the company’s network across Europe and Africa – especially in rural areas and during a natural or humanitarian disaster – for customers on their existing smartphones.

The space network will not be designed for high-density areas already covered by terrestrial networks, Vodafone said.

The mobile operator – the world’s second-biggest – will help AST & Science validate its technology, provide ground equipment to support its satellites and help negotiate with regulators.

It said the technology will be particularly suitable for sparsely populated rural communities and therefore could initially be deployed in some of its African markets.

Vodafone said AST & Science had successfully tested its SpaceMobile technology on board the BlueWalker 1 satellite, launched last April.

The investment brings the total raised by AST & Science to $128m, Vodafone said, including from other investors American Tower, Cisneros, Samsung NEXT and founder Abel Avellan.

Source: Reuters