Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten and Vodafone Group became lead investors backing a start-up project to launch the world’s first satellite network beaming mobile connectivity directly to smartphones, in a move to boost coverage.

Vodafone and Rakuten invested in SpaceMobile, a low-latency LEO satellite network configured to connect directly to standard smartphones. It is being constructed by start-up Avellan Space Technology & Science (AST & Science).

In a joint statement, Vodafone CEO Nick Read said the satellite network will enhance coverage in core markets in Europe, Africa and rural areas, along with providing aid during natural disasters.

Mickey Mikitani, chairman and CEO of Rakuten, added the venture is part of plans for the company to become a leading MNO in Japan and global solutions provider. Rakuten Mobile is scheduled to launch commercial services next month.

In an announcement video, Vodafone CTO Johan Wibergh said the network will be launched in a few years. He highlighted people will not have to buy satellite phones to use in remote areas and can use their 4G/5G smartphones in such places.

Initially the satellites will provide 4G signal to partners with an upgrade to 5G in future.

Other investors in the project include American Tower; Cisneros; Samsung NEXT; and AST & Science founder Abel Avellan. The new investment brings the total capital raised by AST & Science to $128 million.

Vodafone also agreed a strategic partnership with AST & Science and will contribute technical, operational and regulatory expertise in support of the global deployment of SpaceMobile.

Technology giants Amazon and Space X also announced plans to launch satellite networks into space to provide global internet access. Another start-up in this field is Lynk (formerly UbiquitiLink).