AT&T deal will make every phone a satellite phone

Soon, AT&T subscribers will have the option to ensure that they have access to cell service even in typical dead zones, like deep inside national parks or far-flung rural locations. The mobile carrier has been working with AST SpaceMobile since 2018 under a Memorandum of Understanding, helping the latter test two-way audio calls, texts and video calls via satellites in space using ordinary smartphones. Now, the companies have entered a definitive commercial agreement, which means AT&T is getting close to offering subscribers the capability to transform their regular phones into legit satellite devices.

Phones need to be close enough to cell towers to be able to get any sort of service. That’s why people aren’t usually able to call their families, or even text them, when they’re in a forest or in the mountains. AT&T’s satellite-to-phone service will use satellites as cell towers, and since they’re placed in orbit, they’re able to provide connectivity even in remote areas.

The companies have reached an agreement just in time for a rocket launch this summer that will ferry five commercial AST satellites to space. Those satellites will enable AT&T to roll out its service and are just the first ones in the company’s planned constellation. Unfortunately, AT&T has yet to reveal a specific rollout date for the service, and it’s also unclear if it will charge extra for the capability.

Last year, AT&T wrote the FCC to raise concerns about a similar satellite-to-phone technology T-Mobile and SpaceX’s Starlink are working on. The two companies formed an alliance in 2022, promising to provide users with a service that they’ll be able to access even if they’re in the middle of the ocean. SpaceX launched the first Starlink satellites with direct-to-cell service capability in January 2024, and the companies sent and received the first text messages via T-Mobile using the satellites a week later. The carrier said it’s planning to offer satellite-based texting to the public sometime this year.