Cord cutting: Cables that you didn’t know about!

January 2, 2024  |  Adithya Bharath

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A week before my 15th birthday in September 2023, and quite coincidentally in time for my favorite phone's 15th iteration (cough cough, parents, hint hint), AT&T along with AST-Science successfully made a call. Well, in the 21st century that’s not very “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”, but this call was on another level, or as one could say, out of this world!

To back up a bit, telecommunications as we know it has been a terrestrial endeavor since those words were uttered by Dr. Alexander Graham Bell to Mr. Watson. While we are all too familiar with the telephone poles and cables outside our homes, alongside highways (at least as my mom remembers), and train lines (from my grandfather), there are in fact an additional 745,645 miles of cables in the ocean floor connecting various countries. Why are these bits of cable important, you may ask? Well, as much as we may love our movies and media and their portrayal of communication between 2 super villains using phones that bounce signals off various satellites and detour them to different countries to set off a countdown of a doomed nuclear missile countdown, the reality is that the longest distance your wireless signal travels from your mobile phone is to your closest cell phone tower.

Let me repeat that again-when you call your friends to your house for “Thanksgiving leftover pizza” the longest distance the wireless signal travels from your mobile phone is to your closest cell phone tower. No bouncy-bouncy, no detours. Sorry Hollywood! Hello, practical physics!

If that didn’t make you question reality, let me explain this (consider this my PSA for the day!) a little more. Each time you pick up your mobile phone to make a call, your analog voice is converted to digital (that Matrix style 0’s and 1’s) and sent via electromagnetic waves through your phone's antenna to the closest cell phone tower. From the tower, these waves are converted to light pulses (I know this is more fun than the bouncy-bouncy!!) which are then carried at the speed of light via underground optical fiber cables (see I told you those cables were important) to the destination cell tower where they are converted back to electromagnetic waves and sent to the mobile phone of the person you are calling and converted back to analog-all in a split second. Now there is other fun stuff happening, like locating the cell phone, knowing if the phone is busy, and worrying about frequency bandwidths, but hey, I am taking a little bit of Hollywood artistic license here. Not to mention, I have completely skipped voice-over internet/data. But we do have to get back to AT&T and AST.

According to their website, AST SpaceMobile is building the first and only global cellular broadband network in space to operate directly with standard, unmodified mobile devices based on an over 2600 IP and patent portfolio. In 2022, AST launched “Bluewalker3” satellite to communicate directly with unmodified mobile phones, with a future goal of launching multiple commercial satellites aptly named “BlueBirds”-well, kudos to whoever came up with the names, competitively speaking that is, without naming names.

While September 2023 was not the first time AT&T and AST connected from a “wireless dead zone” to another mobile (in Madrid, Spain) using a regular phone (apparently Android) via satellite-that first call was made back in April 2023, this time was significant because in addition to voice calling, the team was able to conduct stable data transfer-14 mbps  download rate ( for context-Fortnite needs 3-4mbps to play online, Netflix needs 5 mbps for HD quality streaming). Tying this in a neat bowtie, the beauty of this technology is that it almost feels like reality is now following Hollywood-we are now going all “bouncy-bouncy”!!

As succinctly put by Chris Sambar, Head of AT&T Network, “These moments are extraordinary milestones in telecommunications history. These first-of-a-kind innovations would not be possible without ecosystem-wide collaboration. We’re all working together to achieve the shared vision of space-based connectivity for consumers, businesses, and first responders all around the globe.” Maybe my version of calling this moment “out of this world” is better than “extraordinary milestones in telecommunications history”, but what do I know, I am just 15 yrs, and I still don’t have that phone I wanted.

Entitlement and privilege apart (I am blessed to have a roof over my head, warm meals, and a caring and overprotective family!), the future of this technology is what I am most looking forward to. I am very interested in the future of humankind beyond planet Earth, and I am always looking at technologies and ideas that don’t tether us down. But while we are here, I do believe this technology can make a world of difference.

We take our instant connectivity for granted. I am fortunate to travel and I do realize that in many countries my parents lived in people struggled to “get a signal”, “find a connection”, or even wondered, “will the power be back tomorrow”. These are real concerns, and real people live there hoping for a day when they too can pick up their phone and call for an emergency medical service from their remote village or communicate with peers on homework when they are unable to travel. The availability of this technology beyond communication also exists where it could change farming and bring food security in developing countries by giving farmers access to markets and finance beyond their physical limits. Even in the health sector, much of the technology’s potential remains untapped, with limited use of smart connected devices or remote diagnostics.

Or hey, even to look for the pizza recipes!

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Tags: ast-science

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