Vodafone Group-backed AST SpaceMobile set a date of 2023 for the launch of what it claims to be the first space-based mobile network delivering high-speed connectivity without the need for specialist consumer hardware.

The AST SpaceMobile project, backed by Vodafone and Rakuten in March, aims to provide coverage to the 49 largest countries around the equator, including several key markets served by Vodafone Group affiliates Safaricom and Vodacom.

It expects to light service in its first batch of countries in 2023.

The company’s fleet of satellites are designed to provide data speeds commonly associated with 4G or 5G to general, commercially available handsets. In the first phase it expects to cover an area inhabited by 1.6 billion people with 20 birds.

Subject to regulatory approval, its first markets will include Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Mozambique, Kenya and Tanzania, where Vodafone affiliates plan to incorporate the service into their offering for remote communities.

AST SpaceMobile added it also plans to apply for regulatory approval to deliver the service in India as part of this first phase.

In a statement, Vodafone backed the project to boost connectivity in its markets, adding the service was “uniquely positioned to provide universal mobile coverage to rural areas in Africa, and in the future, Europe, further extending our leading network”.

“The space-based mobile network will also enable us to provide instant communications in the event of a natural or humanitarian disaster,” it added.

Alongside detailing launch timeline, AST SpaceMobile announced guarantees to raise an additional $462 million in financing to get the service off the ground.

This includes cash from a forthcoming listing on the New York Stock Exchange and additional funding from existing backers including Vodafone, Rakuten, American Tower and a number of financial services companies.