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Rakuten and Vodafone Invest in SpaceMobile, a LEO Cell Service

By | March 3, 2020

Rakuten CEO Mickey Mikitani and AST & Science CEO Abel Avellan meet in Midland, Texas. Photo: AST

Rakuten and Vodafone are the lead investors in a just-announced space-based cellular broadband network called SpaceMobile from AST & Science. AST & Science plans to create a constellation of Low-Earth-Orbit (LEO) satellites that will connect directly to smartphones without specialized satellite hardware or antennas. The company claims that SpaceMobile will be the first and only space-based service with seamless cell phone roaming between satellites and terrestrial cellular networks at comparable data rates.

American Tower, Cisneros and Samsung NEXT are additional investors. The new investments bring the company’s total capital to more than $128 million, including early investments from Cisneros and company founder Abel Avellan. Vodafone will also contribute technical, operational and regulatory experience to SpaceMobile’s global deployment.

AST said that SpaceMobile will initially provide 4G services to partner networks globally with 5G in the future. SpaceMobile plans to sell airtime to mobile operators, who will offer expanded and/or new combined seamless terrestrial and satellite with automatic handoff to their subscribers. AST claims that its proprietary new form factor and deployment method will reduce the time and costs associated with manufacturing, launching, and operating the LEO satellites. The satellites will be manufactured, tested, and launched at AST & Science’s facility at the Midland Air and Space Port in Texas. SpaceMobile’s first test satellite, Bluewalker 1, was launched in April 2019. 

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