LEO Satellite Opportunities in Integration with 5G Networks

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2Q 2021 | IN-6115

As 5G networks expand their capabilities, the utilization of satellite platforms has emerged as a solution to ensure global coverage.

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Industry Players Explore 5G Capabilities from Space


Satellite platforms have always been an important part of the industry providing connectivity to areas which are not covered by terrestrial networks. As network operators roll out 5G networks, satellite and mobile network operators are finding ways to maximize the benefits provided by both technologies. An announcement from Lockheed Martin’s space division and satellite start-up, Omnispace, to explore delivery of 5G capability from space is one of the recent initiatives to enable users with seamless transition between the satellite and the terrestrial network. The two companies are aiming to provide direct to device capability, namely to deliver mobile communications capability form satellite directly to a standardized 5G base handset or terminal.

Satellite Advancements to Supplement 5G Networks


Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO), Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), and newer Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites have been providing connectivity for homes, businesses, aviation, maritime, government, scientific research, and many other segments. High Throughput Satellite (HTS) technology, which uses multiple spot beams and frequency reuse for spectrum optimization, has resulted better throughput capabilities compared to traditional satellite platforms. HTSs using higher spectrum bands such as Ka-band and Ku-band are supporting terabit capacities of throughput enabling more efficient connectivity. LEO constellations orbiting at 800-1600 km from the Earth’s surface support lower latency, between 30-50 ms due to their proximity, while GEO, which are 36000 km far from the Earth’s surface, have higher latency of around 500 ms.

Developments in software defined satellites systems also enable real-time network configuration and flexibility to customize bandwidth requirements based on deployment strategies and use cases. Software defined satellites, together with HTS and LEO systems, will enable more efficient interoperability of satellites with terrestrial networks, especially to support high speed, low latency 5G network deployments. In order to optimize technology advancements, integration of satellite platform into 5G infrastructure has been a part of 3GPP discussions. 3GPP Release 17, which is due to be completed in 2021, will introduce use cases for 5G satellite networks and standards to support seamless integration of 5G platforms. At the same time, industry players are also looking to take advantage of the satellite systems and 5G network roll outs. Similar to Omnispace and Lockheed Martin’s announcement, AST has been exploring to build “SpaceMobile”, direct voice, texting, and data connectivity from satellite to smartphone without requiring additional physical devices to connect to the service. Lynk is another startup company which is working towards connecting to the mobile phones directly from satellites. In early 2020, Lynk successfully trialed sending a text message from a satellite to unmodified phone. Other companies such as SpaceX, Amazon, and OneWeb are also working towards widening the use cases of satellite systems in both consumer and enterprise segments using LEO constellations.

Satellite Opportunities in 5G Network


Despite mobile networks operators accelerating investments in network upgrades and expansions, there are challenges to achieve 100% coverage. Especially in the sparsely populated remote and rural areas, it is challenging to achieve feasible return on investment to rollout terrestrial networks. In some cases, the location and terrain create barriers to networks deployments. Satellite platforms, which support ubiquitous coverage regardless of the locations, are critical to provide cost efficient connectivity solution in such cases. Since 5G deployments are expanding, satellites systems, leveraged with 5G networks, can support multiple use cases including delivery of broadband and video services to homes and businesses, connectivity for IoT applications, etc. Mobile backhauling and communication for moving platforms are other areas satellite platforms can provide additional tools to 5G networks.

Satellite backhauls are used in rural areas where fiber or microwave backhauls are not economically feasible. Even though satellite backhaul deployments are relatively low (only about 2% of worldwide backhaul links) compared to fixed and microwave backhaul options, there is potential to increase in the years to come. Especially LEO satellites, which offer significantly lower latency, create an optimistic outlook to support 5G networks. According to ABI Research’s mobile backhaul analysis, LEO backhaul links are expected to gain traction in 2023 and more than triple in 2027. Ubiquitous coverage of satellite systems can be used to leverage with terrestrial networks to backhaul a large number of IoT data from sensors deployed in agricultural, mining, asset tracking, etc., to local wireless networks. Direct to device projects from AST and Omnispace are other potential use cases of 5G and satellite integrations. Their goal is to enable mobile users receive satellite connectivity to mobile phones instantly when the users reach outside terrestrial network coverage. These developments, using LEO satellites, will help users receive of 5G quality connectivity even outside the mobile networks. Despite opportunities across multiple use cases, leveraging satellite and 5G networks are not without challenges. There have been concerns such as causing the crowded space due to mega-constellations, fulfilling capacity demand, and spectrum limitations, etc. Effective policy and regulations for orbital consideration to avoid potential collisions in the space, removing space garbage when the space becomes more crowded, and spectrum allocations to ensure harmony between terrestrial and 5G networks are required. As 5G networks expand, the opportunity for new and existing satellite operators to roll out innovative services will increase. Specifically, the 5G subscriber base is expected to exceed 1.8 billion by 2025. Considering a significant amount of the earth’s surface is remote or ocean surface, the ability to support connectivity when mobile users are outside the terrestrial network coverage will open up a huge opportunity. Solution providers need to get regulatory approval for the new technology to ensure spectrum availability and ability to operate without any interference with other terrestrial networks. For mobile network operators, partnerships with the right software and hardware solution providers will create early mover advantage and stay ahead of competitors. In addition, satellite and terrestrial network operators will also need to put effort in efficient marketing to create customer awareness of the services and use cases to achieve business success in next generation 5G and satellite platforms.



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