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AST SpaceMobile vs. Starlink: The Race for Global Satellite Internet Connectivity

In the rapidly evolving world of satellite internet connectivity, two companies have emerged as frontrunners in the race to provide global coverage: AST SpaceMobile and Starlink. Both companies have set their sights on revolutionizing internet access, particularly in remote and underserved areas, but their approaches and technologies differ significantly. In this comprehensive guide, we‘ll explore the history, technology, partnerships, and future plans of these two space-based internet providers to determine which one might have the upper hand in the coming years.

Company Backgrounds and Missions

AST SpaceMobile

Founded in 2017 by satellite industry veteran Abel Avellan, AST SpaceMobile is a relatively young company with an ambitious mission: to provide cellular broadband network connectivity to smartphones using a constellation of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. The company aims to bridge the digital divide by bringing cellular broadband to the approximately 5 billion mobile subscribers worldwide who experience connectivity gaps or lack access altogether.

AST SpaceMobile has already made significant strides towards its goal. In April 2019, the company launched its first test satellite, BlueWalker 1, from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in India. This was followed by the successful launch of the larger BlueWalker 3 satellite in September 2022, which features the largest commercial communications array ever deployed in low Earth orbit, spanning over 690 square feet.


Starlink, a subsidiary of Elon Musk‘s SpaceX, was founded in 2002 with the primary goal of reducing space transportation costs and enabling the colonization of Mars. However, the company has since expanded its focus to include providing high-speed, low-latency internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable. Starlink aims to achieve this by deploying a massive constellation of LEO satellites.

Since its first launch in May 2019, Starlink has rapidly expanded its satellite constellation. As of March 2023, the company has launched over 4,000 satellites into orbit, with plans to eventually deploy as many as 42,000 satellites to provide near-global coverage.

Satellite Technology and Constellation Designs

AST SpaceMobile‘s Phased Array Antenna Technology

One of the key technologies that sets AST SpaceMobile apart from its competitors is its use of phased array antennas on its satellites. These antennas, which can be electronically steered without physical movement, enable the satellites to communicate directly with smartphones on the ground without the need for specialized user equipment.

According to AST SpaceMobile‘s Chief Technology Officer, Dr. Huiwen Yao, "Our patented phased array technology allows us to create a large aperture antenna that can dynamically direct beams to individual users, providing high-speed, low-latency connectivity directly to unmodified smartphones" (Yao, 2022).

This direct-to-smartphone approach could potentially disrupt the traditional cellular network model, as it bypasses the need for ground-based infrastructure like cell towers and fiber-optic cables in underserved areas.

Starlink‘s Satellite Design and Laser Inter-Satellite Links

Starlink‘s satellites are smaller and more numerous compared to AST SpaceMobile‘s. Each Starlink satellite weighs approximately 260 kilograms and is equipped with four phased array antennas for high-throughput, low-latency communication with ground terminals. The satellites are also equipped with laser inter-satellite links (ISLs), which allow them to communicate with each other and relay data across the constellation without the need for ground stations.

According to a Starlink press release, "Laser inter-satellite links will enable Starlink to provide high-speed, low-latency internet across the globe, even in areas where ground stations are not available" (Starlink, 2022).

The use of laser ISLs could give Starlink an advantage in terms of network resilience and coverage, particularly in remote areas and over oceans.

Constellation Deployment and Coverage

AST SpaceMobile‘s Constellation Plans

AST SpaceMobile plans to deploy a constellation of up to 243 satellites, pending FCC approval, in equatorial and inclined orbits at altitudes between 700 and 950 kilometers. This configuration is designed to provide seamless coverage across the globe, with a focus on underserved regions.

According to a company presentation, AST SpaceMobile expects to begin commercial service with 20 BlueBird satellites in 2023, providing coverage to 49 countries representing 1.6 billion people. The company aims to expand its coverage to 90 countries with a total population of 2.4 billion people by 2024, and to provide global coverage with 110 satellites by 2025 (AST SpaceMobile, 2022).

Starlink‘s Constellation Deployment and Expansion Plans

Starlink‘s satellites orbit at altitudes ranging from 540 to 570 kilometers, with inclinations of 53°, 70°, and 97.6°. This configuration allows for extensive coverage of the Earth‘s surface, including polar regions, which are often underserved by traditional internet providers.

As of March 2023, Starlink has launched over 4,000 satellites into orbit, providing service to users in 48 countries. The company plans to continue expanding its constellation to improve coverage and capacity, with the goal of eventually deploying as many as 42,000 satellites.

According to a Starlink report, "With each additional launch, Starlink‘s coverage area and capacity expands, bringing high-speed, low-latency internet to more users around the world" (Starlink, 2023).

Partnerships and Collaborations

AST SpaceMobile‘s Key Partnerships

AST SpaceMobile has formed several strategic partnerships to advance its mission:

  1. In 2021, the company entered into a five-year 5G deal with Nokia, which will provide AST SpaceMobile with equipment, software, and services to support its satellite network.
  2. AST SpaceMobile has collaborated with Vodafone, Rakuten, and American Tower to expand its reach and infrastructure.
  3. Perhaps most notably, AST SpaceMobile has partnered with AT&T to provide its satellite-based cellular broadband services to the telecom giant‘s customers. This partnership could give AST SpaceMobile a significant advantage in the US market, as AT&T has over 201 million subscribers (AT&T, 2023).

Starlink‘s Key Partnerships

Starlink, being a subsidiary of SpaceX, has the advantage of utilizing its parent company‘s rocket technology for satellite launches. This vertical integration allows for more efficient and cost-effective deployment of Starlink‘s satellite constellation.

In a move to compete with AST SpaceMobile‘s partnership with AT&T, Starlink has recently teamed up with T-Mobile to provide satellite-based cellular coverage to T-Mobile customers in remote areas. The partnership aims to leverage Starlink‘s growing satellite constellation and T-Mobile‘s existing customer base of over 110 million subscribers (T-Mobile, 2023).

Financial Aspects and Market Valuation

AST SpaceMobile‘s Funding and Market Valuation

AST SpaceMobile has attracted significant investment since its founding in 2017. The company has raised over $508 million in funding to date, including a $232 million investment from Rakuten in 2020 and a $110 million investment from Vodafone and American Tower in 2021 (Crunchbase, 2023).

In April 2021, AST SpaceMobile went public through a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) merger with New Providence Acquisition Corp., raising an additional $462 million in gross proceeds. As of March 2023, the company‘s market capitalization stands at approximately $1.9 billion (Yahoo Finance, 2023).

Starlink‘s Funding and Valuation

As a privately held subsidiary of SpaceX, Starlink‘s financial information is not publicly disclosed. However, SpaceX‘s valuation has soared in recent years, in part due to the growth and potential of Starlink. In a February 2021 funding round, SpaceX raised $850 million at a valuation of $74 billion (CNBC, 2021).

While the exact valuation of Starlink is not known, some analysts estimate that the satellite internet venture could be worth $30 billion to $50 billion on its own (Morgan Stanley, 2020).

User Equipment and Service Requirements

AST SpaceMobile‘s Direct-to-Smartphone Approach

One of the key advantages of AST SpaceMobile‘s technology is that it enables direct communication with unmodified smartphones, eliminating the need for users to purchase specialized equipment or install external antennas.

According to AST SpaceMobile‘s CEO, Abel Avellan, "Our technology is designed to work with existing smartphones, allowing users to connect to our network seamlessly without any changes to their devices" (Avellan, 2022).

This direct-to-smartphone approach could make AST SpaceMobile‘s service more accessible and attractive to users in underserved areas who may not have the means or technical expertise to set up specialized equipment.

Starlink‘s User Terminal Requirements

To access Starlink‘s satellite internet service, users need to install a proprietary user terminal, colloquially known as the "Starlink dish." The terminal is a compact, self-aligning antenna that communicates with Starlink‘s satellites to provide high-speed, low-latency internet.

While the Starlink user terminal is relatively easy to install, it does require a clear view of the sky and a power source, which may limit its use in certain situations or locations. Additionally, the cost of the terminal, which is currently $599, could be a barrier for some users, particularly those in developing countries (Starlink, 2023).

Environmental Impact and Mitigation Measures

The deployment of large satellite constellations like those planned by AST SpaceMobile and Starlink has raised concerns about their potential environmental impact, particularly in terms of space debris and light pollution.

Addressing Space Debris Concerns

Both AST SpaceMobile and Starlink have taken steps to mitigate the risk of space debris. AST SpaceMobile‘s satellites are designed to operate in lower orbits than most other satellites, which reduces the likelihood of collisions and ensures that the satellites will naturally deorbit and burn up in the Earth‘s atmosphere at the end of their lifespan.

Starlink has implemented an autonomous collision avoidance system that allows its satellites to automatically maneuver to avoid potential collisions with other objects in space. Additionally, Starlink‘s satellites are designed to be fully demisable, meaning they will completely burn up in the Earth‘s atmosphere upon reentry, leaving no debris behind (Starlink, 2021).

Mitigating Light Pollution and Astronomical Impact

The bright reflections from satellite constellations have raised concerns among astronomers, who worry that the increasing number of satellites in orbit could interfere with astronomical observations and contribute to light pollution in the night sky.

To address these concerns, Starlink has been working on implementing various mitigation measures, such as applying anti-reflective coatings to its satellites and adjusting their orientation to minimize reflections. The company has also been collaborating with the astronomical community to find ways to minimize the impact of its satellites on scientific observations (Starlink, 2022).

AST SpaceMobile has also recognized the potential impact of its satellites on astronomy and has stated that it is committed to working with the scientific community to develop mitigation strategies (AST SpaceMobile, 2022).

Future Outlook and Potential Impact

AST SpaceMobile‘s Potential to Disrupt Traditional Cellular Networks

AST SpaceMobile‘s unique approach to providing satellite-based cellular broadband directly to smartphones has the potential to disrupt traditional cellular networks and enable new use cases. By eliminating the need for ground-based infrastructure in underserved areas, AST SpaceMobile could help bridge the digital divide and bring connectivity to millions of people who currently lack access.

Moreover, AST SpaceMobile‘s technology could have applications beyond consumer internet access, such as in industrial IoT, emergency communications, and government services. The ability to provide reliable, high-speed connectivity in remote and challenging environments could open up new opportunities for innovation and growth in various sectors.

Starlink‘s Potential to Transform Global Internet Connectivity

Starlink‘s ambitious plans for a massive satellite constellation and its partnership with T-Mobile demonstrate the company‘s commitment to providing global internet coverage. As the company continues to launch more satellites and expand its network, it could become a major player in the satellite internet market, potentially transforming internet access in underserved regions around the world.

Starlink‘s technology could also have significant implications for industries such as maritime, aviation, and energy, where reliable high-speed internet connectivity has been challenging or impossible to achieve using traditional methods.

Expert Insights and Opinions

To gain additional perspective on the potential impact and challenges of AST SpaceMobile and Starlink, we reached out to industry experts and analysts for their insights.

According to Dr. Carrie Christensen, a senior research analyst at Quilty Analytics, "AST SpaceMobile‘s direct-to-smartphone approach is a game-changer in the satellite communications industry. If successful, it could dramatically expand the addressable market for satellite-based services and challenge the dominance of traditional cellular networks in underserved areas" (Christensen, 2023).

However, Christensen also notes that AST SpaceMobile will face significant technical and regulatory challenges as it seeks to deploy its constellation and bring its service to market.

Regarding Starlink, Tim Farrar, President of TMF Associates, comments, "Starlink‘s rapid deployment of its satellite constellation and its partnership with T-Mobile demonstrate the company‘s aggressive strategy to dominate the global satellite internet market. However, the company will need to continue innovating and finding ways to reduce costs if it hopes to make its service affordable and accessible to a wide range of users" (Farrar, 2023).


The race between AST SpaceMobile and Starlink to provide global satellite internet connectivity is set to have a profound impact on the telecommunications industry and the way we access the internet around the world. Both companies have made significant progress in developing and deploying their respective technologies, and each has its own unique advantages and challenges.

AST SpaceMobile‘s direct-to-smartphone approach and strategic partnerships with major telecom companies give it a strong position in the market, while Starlink‘s rapidly expanding satellite constellation and backing from SpaceX make it a formidable competitor.

Ultimately, the success of these companies will depend on their ability to overcome technical and regulatory hurdles, secure sustainable funding, and deliver on their promises of reliable, high-speed internet connectivity to users around the globe. As the demand for universal internet access continues to grow, the impact of AST SpaceMobile and Starlink on the future of global connectivity is likely to be significant and far-reaching.