AT&T completes first ‘space-based voice call’ using standard smartphone

AT&T, with the help of satellite communications specialist AST SpaceMobile, has announced the first two-way audio call using satellites with a standard smartphone. The initial call came from AT&T in Midland, Texas, to mobile carrier Ratuken in Japan on an unmodified Samsung Galaxy S22 smartphone using AST SpaceMobile’s BlueWalker 3 satellite.

The use of satellites could be a significant step toward increasing cellular access not only in the US, where large areas of the country struggle with service, but also in developing countries. Typically, a mobile phone call requires nearby cell phone towers to provide service. Many areas in the United States, such as rural communities and national parks, are “dead zones,” yes, as disturbing Verizon commercials from the early 2000s warned. The same technology could be a great solution for same problems in developing countries. Instead, the satellites could act as a sort of space network of cell phone towers, and AST SpaceMobile claims it is “building the first and only space-based cellular broadband network.”

AT&T aims to use satellites to provide global cellular broadband from 2G to 5G. “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,” Abel Avellan, CEO and President of AST SpaceMobile said in a statement. “While we take a moment to celebrate this tremendous achievement, we remain focused on the way forward and critical next steps that move us closer to our goal of transforming the way the world connects.”

It is not clear if satellite access would cost extra. In the original announcement from AT&T’s AST SpaceMobile partnership, the company couldn’t say whether existing plans would include satellite coverage.

AT&T is one of the few carriers looking to expand its satellite access. Verizon partnered with Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellite network in 2021 with the intention of connecting underserved communities and industries. Amazon is in the midst of launching its satellites into space, and its FCC license requires that at least half of the 3,236 it plans to deploy be operational by July 2026.

T-Mobile has also partnered with SpaceX, a major competitor to Project Kuiper, with plans to “start testing” its mobile satellite coverage this year. There are currently more than 4,000 Starlink V2 satellites in orbit, although some have experienced problems that require them to be removed from orbit or tried more. T-Mobile has asserted that customers should have satellite access through most existing plans and, like AT&T, that existing phones should work with satellite offerings.

While satellite offers are not yet available to consumers, this successful trial brings widespread access one step closer to becoming a reality.

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