Satellite-to-smartphone broadband company AST & Science to go public through a SPAC

Investing

AST’s corporate headquarters and high-volume manufacturing facility in Midland, Texas

AST & Science

Special purpose acquisition company New Providence will take next-generation satellite broadband specialist AST & Science public through a SPAC deal that gives the space company an equity value of $1.8 billion, the firm announced on Wednesday.

AST will list on the Nasdaq under the ticker symbol “ASTS” when the deal closes, which is expected in the first quarter of next year. New Providence’s SPAC is currently listed under the symbol “NPA.”

Based in Midland, Texas, AST is building a network of satellites it calls “SpaceMobile,” designed to deliver broadband from space directly to consumer smartphones. Existing satellite networks require additional physical devices to connect to the service, such as Iridium’s mobile satellite phones or SpaceX’s Starlink user terminals.

“What we’re doing is launching a space-based satellite network that allows any phone – without any modification of hardware, software, apps, nothing – to be able to connect directly to satellites,” AST chairman and CEO Abel Avellan told CNBC.

“This will support true 5G broadband speed,” Avellan added.

AST investor presentation from November 2020

Avellan founded AST in May 2017, raising about $121 million before the SPAC merger. He’s invested some of his money into the company, and will retain 43% ownership of AST when it goes public, with other existing shareholders retaining a 29% stake. The company has about 160 employees.

New Providence’s SPAC was announced in September 2019, raising $230 million in a public offering that told investors it planned “to acquire a company in the broader consumer market.”

“AST SpaceMobile represents a unique opportunity to invest in a pioneering company with revolutionary technology, a built-in customer base, and a flexible and scalable business model that addresses one of the largest challenges to global connectivity,” New Providence chairman Alex Coleman said in a statement.

The deal also secured $230 million in private placement investment, or “PIPE,” which is being led by AST’s existing shareholders and joined by UBS O’Connor.

The company is at least the third in the space sector to take the SPAC route to access public markets, with Sir Richard Branson’s tourism company Virgin Galactic debuting in late 2019 and space transportation specialist Momentus preparing to go public early next year through a deal with Stable Road Capital.

One satellite tested in orbit, more coming

AST & Science investor presentation from November 2020

Avellan explained that AST is “still in the development phase” building its SpaceMobile network, also known in the space industry as a constellation of satellites. The company launched an experimental satellite, named BlueWalker 1, in April 2019. The satellite successfully reached orbit and served as a technology testbed.

The company plans to launch BlueWalker 3, its second test satellite, in late 2021. That satellite will cost about $48 million, according to AST’s investor presentation in November 2020. Avellan noted that, like BlueWalker 1, BlueWalker 3 “will also not be for end user services.”

“We get to revenue when we launch our first 20 [satellites] in the second half of 2022 for commercial operation in 2023,” Avellan said.

The SPAC deal funds AST’s development of SpaceMobile through “phase one” construction, giving the company “enough capital to launch our first 20 satellites,” Avellan said. The company expects to have $541 million in cash on hand after it goes public, just more than the $510 million cost it estimates for the first phase, which will provide service in equatorial regions. That includes $259 million to build and launch 20 satellites, $146 million in operating expenses, $30 million to further build out its Texas facility, and $27 million for development of space ground infrastructure.

After phase one, AST expects it will cost another $1.7 billion to launch another 168 satellites to provide global coverage with SpaceMobile.

AST plans to launch the satellites into orbit at an altitude of 700 kilometers — or almost twice as high as the International Space Station’s orbit. Avellan declined to name any rocket companies that AST has contracts with, instead describing launch as a buyer’s market. AST’s investor presentation named Elon Musk’s SpaceX, European ArianeGroup, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Russian GK Launch and Indian PSLV as potential launch providers.

Partnered with Vodafone to launch initial service in 2023

Rakuten CEO Mickey Mikitani, left, and AST & Science chairman and CEO Abel Avellan

AST & Science

AST also on Wednesday announced that existing investor Vodafone Group as a SpaceMobile launch partner, with the British telecommunications giant planning to be involved when AST’s service begins in 2023. Vodafone in March invested in AST alongside Japanese conglomerate Rakuten.

“We believe SpaceMobile is uniquely placed to provide universal mobile coverage, further enhancing our leading network across Europe and Africa – especially in rural areas and during a natural or humanitarian disaster – for customers on their existing smartphones,” Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read said in a statement in March.

Through the Vodafone partnership, and pending regulatory approval in each country, AST expects to offer commercial service in 49 equatorial nations. The company’s SpaceMobile network will reach “over 700 million unconnected people,” according to AST’s investor presentation.

More broadly, Avellan sees SpaceMobile as complementary to existing telecommunications and broadband services.

“A significant part of the market is [people] who, for a few dollars a month, are willing to pay their telecommunications company to make sure their phone works wherever they are,” Avellan said.

AST’s board of directors notably includes its telecom partners. With Avellan as the chairman, the AST board includes Rakuten chairman and CEO Mickey Mikitani, Vodafone head of research and development Luke Ibbetson, Cisneros Group CEO Adriana Cisneros and Rakuten Mobile executive vice president and CTO Tareq Amin, with American Tower CTO Ed Knapp as a board observer and AST COO and CFO Tom Severson as a director.

AST projects $1 billion in revenue by 2024

AST does not expect to be cash flow positive for three years, essentially until the first 20 satellites of the constellation are in service. Its investor presentation says AST will have a “first mover advantage to establish market position, with no competition yet identified.”

The company projects SpaceMobile’s subscriber growth to begin in 2023 with 9 million, when it expects to net $181 million in revenue — or about $20 per subscriber. And AST expects subscriber growth to move quickly from there, nearly quintupling to 44 million users in 2024 with $1 billion in revenue. By 2027, AST forecasts SpaceMobile will have more than $9.6 billion in annual revenue.

“Assumes a 4-year ramp to reach a low- to mid-single digit market penetration; low double-digit subscriber growth thereafter,” AST’s investor presentation said.

AST notably drew the attention of NASA in October, when the U.S. space agency commented on the company’s FCC proposal and said that AST’s “extremely large satellites” would create “an unacceptably high risk of a catastrophic debris-producing collision” in orbit. AST’s Space Mobile satellites have large antennas, but the company and NASA have said they will work together to find any needed solutions.

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