Rakuten gets license for LEO satellite tests


Operator Rakuten Mobile has snapped up a license to perform mobile communication tests and preliminary verification in Japan using AST SpaceMobile’s low earth orbit satellite, BlueWalker 3.

End-to-End testing with BlueWalker 3 low earth orbit test satellite will begin in Japan in the next few months. Rakuten Mobile’s ultimate aim is to provide comms using AST SpaceMobile’s planned network to connect to smartphones in mountainous areas and remote islands, which are usually out of range of networks, in part to help with disaster management.

Rakuten Mobile made applications to the Tohoku Telecommunications Bureau for a Gateway Experimental Test Station license (which is apparently equivalent to a mobile base station) and to the Kanto Telecommunications Bureau for a Mobile Terminal Experimental Test Station license (equivalent to a portable mobile base station), and it has had both approved. It will now begin to prepare a gateway earth station in Fukushima Prefecture to test the comms between the satellites and mobile devices in mountain areas of Hokkaido.

AST SpaceMobile launched the test satellite BlueWalker 3 into orbit from the US in September, and this month it announced the deployment of the communications array for its test satellite in orbit.

Around a year ago, Rakuten announced it was investigating LEO-based satellite IoT tech alongside the University of Tokyo. “By building an NB-IoT and LTE network using satellites, it will become possible to provide low cost IoT services for various industries in locations that would typically be out of network coverage, such as mountainous areas, remote islands or on the sea,” Rakuten said in a statement at the time.

This all means more competition for Lynk, who’s satellite-direct-to-phone service recently got the green light from US comms regulator the Federal Communications Commission. Lynk says it’s the world’s first commercial license granted for a satellite-direct-to-phone service, and it will begin commercial services later this year.

The firm launched its Lynk Tower 1 satellite in April, and is scheduled to launch more. We’re told it has signed contracts with 15 mobile network operators in 36 countries representing over 240 million mobile subscribers, and is actively testing in ten countries.

The entire sector got a lot more eyes on it in September, with Elon Musk’s Starlink and T-Mobile’s joint announcement that they plan to work on a similar satellite-direct-to-phone service. The announcement was lacking in specifics as to when any such service might arrive, but it grabbed attention in no small part because of Musk’s star appeal.

So activity is certainly ramping up a bit in the space (pardon the pun). Though how large the commercial market is for providing connectivity to mountain ranges and jungles and anywhere else operators have deemed not worth bothering to connect to terrestrial networks remains a key question.

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