A plethora of companies are currently engaged in a multi-billion-dollar race to enhance internet connectivity across the globe.
These services, which are made possible by vastly decreasing rocket launch costs, mostly rely on satellites that operate in low Earth orbit (LEO) to transmit signals.
Starlink, with over 1.5 million subscribers, remains the leader of the pack. However, services like Amazon’s Project Kuiper are racing to close that gap.
Another one of those competitors is AST SpaceMobile, which aims to differentiate itself by forgoing the need of purchasing expensive hardware.
Instead, the company’s satellites can directly connect to everyday smartphones with the goal of eliminating cellular dead zones.
Consumers will be able to tap into AST’s offering by virtue of the partnerships it signed with mobile network operators, including AT&T and Vodafone.
But before we go ahead in comparing the two projects, here’s a quick breakdown of the key facts regarding AST SpaceMobile and Starlink.
|Subscriber count||25 mobile network carriers||1.5 million|
|Target customer||B2B||B2C & B2B|
|Number of satellites in orbit||2||4,129|
|First satellite launched in||2019||2018|
|Proposed constellation size||168||7,500 (Gen2)|
|Revenue||$13.8 million (2022)||$1 billion+ (estimated)|
|Funding raised||$895 million||$9.8 billion (via SpaceX)|
Interestingly, SpaceX vis-à-vis Starlink is also working on a direct-to-cell service in the US in collaboration with T-Mobile. A similar service has already been launched in New Zealand together with local operator One.
With that being said, let’s take a closer look at how the two services stack up against each other in terms of their constellation size, satellite tech, launch partnerships, revenue, and more.
Satellites & Constellation Size
Both AST SpaceMobile and Starlink rely on a constellation of satellites, which operate in LEO. However, the details differ quite substantially.
The constellation that AST SpaceMobile plans to operate will eventually comprise 168 satellites. So far, the company has only launched two prototypes, namely the BlueWalker 1 (April 2019) and BlueWalker 3 (September 2022).
BlueWalker 3 weighs around 1,500 kg (~ 3,300 lbs) and boasts a size of 64 square meters, making it the largest commercial communications satellite in LEO.
Its size enables the satellite to have a much greater field of view, equal to about 780,000 square kilometers (~ 300,000 square miles).
As a result, it can connect to a much greater number of devices. For reference, Starlink’s satellites beam signals into hexagons that are equal to about 379 square kilometers.
AST SpaceMobile plans to eventually replace those prototypes with its BlueBird satellites, which are even bigger in terms of size and weight. The first five BlueBird sats are slated for a 2024 launch.
Starlink, on the other hand, aims to eventually operate a constellation of over 30,000 satellites. However, it has ‘only’ received FCC approval for the launch of 7,500 Gen2 satellites.
In the meantime, SpaceX has launched over 4,500 V1.5 satellites to date. Another 50+ of its Gen2 mini sats have been deployed on top of that.
But how do V1.5, V2, and V2 Mini sats differ from each other? The V1.5 model weighs 300 kg (661 lbs) and has solar arrays with a length of 10 meters (32.8 feet).
Meanwhile, the V2 Mini sats, despite their name, are weighing 800 kg (~ 1,753 lbs) and are thus nearly three times heavier than their predecessor (V1.5).
As a result, SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket can ‘only’ transport around 20 of them for each mission versus the 50 to 60 V1.5 sats that are normally being launched.
Each V2 Mini satellite is able to provide around 80 Gbps of data, which is four times as much as the V1.5 sats (20 Gbps) offer.
However, either model pales in comparison to the Gen2 satellites. In fact, the satellites are so big that they can only be transported on SpaceX’s Starship rocket, which is projected to launch regularly in the coming years.
They weigh around 2,000 kg each (~ 4409 lbs), with solar arrays that are each 20 meters long (vs. 12.8 meters for each array on the Gen2 Mini).
In either case, Starlink’s satellites are licensed to operate in orbital shells of around 550km (~ 341 miles).
With that said, each Starlink satellite is projected to remain in LEO for around 5 to 6 years. The satellites will then re-enter Earth during which they mostly burn up.
AST SpaceMobile relies on launch service providers to get its satellites into LEO. And those launch partners have certainly varied over the years.
Its first satellite, the BlueWalker 1, was transported on the PSLV-QL rocket developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
BlueWalker 2, which was never launched, as well as BlueWalker 3, were supposed to be transported on Russia’s now-embargoed Soyuz rocket.
Once the war in Ukraine broke out, AST made the switch to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to continue taking advantage of comparatively cheap launch services.
BlueWalker 3, after AST received the green light from the FCC back in May 2022, was launched with the help of the Falcon 9 in September of the same year. AST’s next five satellites are all slated for Falcon 9 launches as well.
Meanwhile, having access to comparatively cheap launch capabilities is certainly one of the biggest competitive advantages Starlink possesses.
Since Starlink is owned by SpaceX and thus vertically integrated into its business, its costs are equal to those that SpaceX incurs during each launch.
A Falcon 9 launch costs SpaceX about $15 million whereas it charges its customers up to $67 million. As a result, Starlink can get its satellites into space at 22 percent of the cost that competition like AST SpaceMobile or OneWeb incurs.
Availability & Customers
Even though AST SpaceMobile develops a product aimed at consumers, its customers are actually mobile network operators (MNO).
The firm claims that it “has entered into agreements and understandings with over 25 mobile network operators which collectively service over 1.8 billion cellular customers.”
Customers that AST has managed to close include AT&T, Rakuten Mobile, Telefonica, and Vodafone, among many others.
AST SpaceMobile will then utilize the existing spectrum licenses its MNO partners have already obtained to transmit signals between mobile phones, ground stations, and its satellites. For example, in the US it has filed with the FCC to lease terrestrial spectrum from AT&T.
The company has previously stated that it can provide initial service with 20 satellites while full global broadband coverage is achieved with 110 satellites.
Right now, it remains unclear how AST will monetize its service. In all likelihood, its MNO partners will simply over dead zone coverage as an add-on option to their customers, which AST then takes a cut from.
Starlink, on the other hand, is aimed at both consumers and enterprise customers. It now boasts more than 1.5 million subscribers in the 50+ markets the service is active in.
However, 80 percent of Starlink’s customers are believed to be from North America (Canada + US) where fiber and 5G infrastructure are still lacking.
On the B2B side, Starlink offers a variety of different plans aimed at airlines (Aviation), cruise ships and vessels (Maritime), or stationary and remote enterprises (Business).
As previously mentioned, the single biggest advancement that AST SpaceMobile brings to the table is that its service can be used without purchasing dedicated hardware.
In theory, the only piece of equipment you need is your mobile phone. AST claims that its technology can be used on any popular device, including Apple’s iPhone or Samsung’s Galaxy models.
When a smartphone is turned on, it will automatically scan for the nearest AST SpaceMobile satellite, which it then directly connects to.
The firm’s satellites are designed to mimic terrestrial network hardware such as mobile cell towers, thus allowing smartphones to tap into the same frequency bands.
AST SpaceMobile will, at least in theory, be able to support cellular broadband speeds and 4G LTE / 5G waveforms.
Back in late April 2023, its CEO and founder Abel Avellan conducted the first-ever two-way voice call using the firm’s BlueWalker 3 (“BW3”) satellite, thus proving the feasibility of AST’s invention.
Starlink, on the other side, offers a variety of different hardware sets, depending on your use case. Its standard set comes with an electronic phased array antenna, router, base on which the antenna can be mounted, and various cables.
Additionally, Starlink offers a High Performance antenna, which is largely aimed at business and enterprise customers.
Lastly, a flat High Performance dish is meant to maximize performance while on the go (thus relevant for those subscribed to its Mobility plans).
Developing and getting satellites into space is certainly not a cheap endeavor. AST SpaceMobile, for its part, has raised close to a billion dollars in funding.
AST, prior to going public via a SPAC in April 2021, convinced investors such as Rakuten or Vodafone to pour $128 million into the company.
The SPAC merger netted the firm another $462 million. Simultaneously, they rebranded the company from AST & Science to its current moniker AST SpaceMobile.
In the ensuing months, AST raised two more equity tranches of $230 million and $75 million, respectively, totaling $895 million in lifetime funding.
With Starlink, investment figures are a lot tougher to come by. That’s because it’s owned by SpaceX, which itself is a private company that is not obligated to disclose financial figures.
What we do know is that SpaceX has managed to raise an eye-watering $9.8 billion in venture funding according to Crunchbase.
Meanwhile, investors in its latest funding round, in which SpaceX raised around $750 million, have valued the company at $137 billion.
Luckily, AST SpaceMobile is obligated to disclose its revenue and profit/loss metrics due to the fact that it’s a public company.
With that said, the company still has a long way to go. For the fiscal year 2022, it generated $13.825 million in revenue. However, AST still managed to lose a whopping $103 million.
The trend continued into Q1 2023 where AST SpaceMobile did not generate any revenue on losses of $45 million.
Burning that much money is certainly not uncommon in the space industry where an overwhelming majority of companies go bust before reaching the point of commercialization.
SpaceX and Starlink are a rare exception in this regard. Although SpaceX, in all likeliness, still relies on outside venture funding, it actually has two very potent revenue streams.
The company is believed to generate multiple billions in revenue just on launch services alone. However, Starlink has likely crossed the 10-figure revenue threshold as well.
Back in May 2023, Starlink announced that it had just reached 1.5 million subscribers. If we assume average contract values of $100 per month, then Starlink would boast an annual revenue run rate of $1.8 billion (= 12 months x 1.5 million subscribers * $100 per month).
In fact, SpaceX plans to eventually spin off its Starlink subsidiary and use the proceeds to fund the development of its Starship rocket. Until then, we’ll, unfortunately, have to continue with our back-of-the-envelope math.
While Starlink remains the dominant player in the satellite internet space, AST SpaceMobile’s unique approach of directly connecting to smartphones offers a compelling alternative, making the race to connect the world increasingly exciting.
It remains to be seen whether AST, which is now also competing with Starlink to some extent, can continue attracting enough capital until it starts generating revenue from its MNO partnerships.
Starlink is certainly a formidable competitor thanks to its vertical integration with SpaceX and distribution advantage (i.e., Elon’s Twitter following).
AST’s focus on mobile network operators and unique satellite design, especially considering Starlink’s somewhat limited data throughput, may help the company to carve out a profitable niche for itself.