In mid-June, I provided my analysis of the low Earth satellite (LEO) space race between front runners AST SpaceMobile and Starlink. Given its intellectual property and potential business model strengths, I gave the edge to AST SpaceMobile in that article. Since then, I have been able to tour two AST SpaceMobile facilities in Midland, Texas, the first visits granted to the media and analyst community since the company’s inception six years ago. I want to share what I have learned from my experience with AST SpaceMobile, and what I continue to find compelling about the company.
AST SpaceMobile tour
My visit to AST SpaceMobile came on one of the hottest days this summer in Texas, making it feel like I was on Mars and not at the Midland International Air & Space Port! My tour of the two facilities was led by Ken Kramer, the company’s senior vice president of manufacturing and general manager of its Midland operations. Kramer brings a wealth of experience to his role, having previously served in senior positions with Aerojet Rocketdyne and Northrop Grumman.
In the first facility I saw at the spaceport, we walked through the clean rooms that birthed the company’s first two test satellites—BlueWalker 1, launched in the spring of 2019, and BlueWalker 3, launched in the fall of last year. It is an impressive space, one that is currently housing several subassembly projects for AST SpaceMobile’s commercial LEO satellite production, including solar panel and wiring harness assemblies. The company could simply purchase these components. However, to mitigate costs, ensure continuity of supply and deliver the highest quality, AST SpaceMobile is taking a vertical integration approach and building these components itself instead. In the process, it is creating high-skill employment opportunities for the Permian Basin, an area that has traditionally relied on the oil and gas industry for most of its jobs.
AST SpaceMobile recently secured a second campus a short distance from the first one; this new campus is being prepared to support the final assembly and testing of the company’s commercial LEO satellites. The facility’s footprint is massive, at more than 100,000 square feet, and should give AST SpaceMobile the room it needs to scale its operations over the long term. As I walked through the facility building by building, I was not only struck by its sheer size but also impressed with the company’s investment in property, plant and equipment to prepare itself for large-scale production and deployment.
I am convinced that, in choosing AST SpaceMobile, AT&T picked the right LEO satellite partner as it works towards closing gaps in highly remote locations within its terrestrial network. AST SpaceMobile is providing infrastructure that enables AT&T and other network operators worldwide to deliver broader coverage to millions of existing mobile devices and users. This is a brilliant strategy that potentially provides another avenue for operator monetization in the telecommunications industry.
The AT&T and AST SpaceMobile partnership has the potential to scale up and serve as a model for bridging the digital divide globally. Recent funding by the Biden administration earmarked for investment in areas in the United States underserved by broadband and mobile services is not enough. Watershed capabilities, such as the recent voice call demonstration by AT&T and AST SpaceMobile, could be a big help for providing internet access to the 40 percent of the world still unconnected.
The benefits arising from AST SpaceMobile’s commercialization efforts are ultimately immeasurable, because they transcend technical specs to help facilitate digital societal inclusion, access to education and re-skilling to foster economic prosperity. In some parts of the world, for example, LEO satellite connectivity will help foster sustainability through the improvement of crop yields and other measures that increase the supply of food through the use of connected agricultural technology platforms. That’s the real impact of AST SpaceMobile’s satellite to terrestrial mobile network connectivity—and it’s well worth celebrating.