Vodafone Group, the parent company of South Africa’s largest mobile network operator, Vodacom, has concluded a partnership with AST SpaceMobile to launch the first phase of AST SpaceMobile’s space-based commercial mobile communications service in 2023.

This will be the first service of its kind to connect standard mobile phones at 4G and 5G speeds using AST SpaceMobile’s patented space-based network, after securing funding to take the venture to this stage, which will cover the 49 of the largest countries in the equatorial regions.

To support this first phase of the commercial launch of its network, AST SpaceMobile secured “up to $462 million in gross proceeds in additional financing”. This will come from existing investors in the company including Vodafone, Rakuten and American Tower, as well as new financial investors including UBS O’Connor and a broad base of financial institutions.

According to a statement, Vodafone says wants to ensure that its customers are always connected and benefit from a digital society, adding that AST SpaceMobile is positioned to provide universal mobile coverage to rural areas in Africa and, in future, Europe. The space-based mobile network will also enable Vodafone to provide instant communications in the event of a natural or humanitarian disaster.

Currently, more than five billion mobile subscribers constantly move in and out of wireless coverage, and AST SpaceMobile’s solution will fill these coverage gaps to enable people to stay connected while on the move.

Affordable mobile connectivity

Vodafone claims that this is a significant breakthrough in bringing affordable mobile connectivity to more than half of the world’s population that does not have internet access on mobile devices.

The first tranche of AST SpaceMobile’s launch plans will involve the use of 20 satellites to offer seamless, low-latency mobile connectivity that can be accessed by approximately 1.6 billion people across a vast geographical region.

The initial service will target an area North and South of the equator, including rural and remote areas of a number of markets where Vodafone will integrate the technology into the services provided by its Vodacom, Safaricom and Vodafone brands.

Subject to regulatory approval in each market, these will include the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Mozambique, Kenya, and Tanzania. AST SpaceMobile will also apply for regulatory approval to launch the service in India.

“Providing affordable mobile coverage for everyone requires a blend of technologies and infrastructure, from traditional masts to small cells, balloons and satellites at the edge of space. While we have been adding deep rural network sites to connect remote communities without any coverage, the lack of power in some areas creates insurmountable obstacles,” says Vodacom Group CEO Shameel Joosub.

“AST SpaceMobile will ensure that remote communities in many sub-Saharan African countries can have access to the latest digital services.”

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