5G Integrated Access and Backhaul Technology Sees Viability in the Maritime Industry

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By Matthias Foo | 2Q 2024 | IN-7277

In March 2024, Inmarsat Maritime signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Aramco to conduct trials that will use 5G Integrated Access and Backhaul (IAB) technology to provide high data-throughput connectivity for Aramco’s offshore sites such as vessels and shipping fleets. With backhaul being a critical component of cellular network infrastructure, this ABI Insight looks at the growth potential for mobile IAB technology vis-à-vis other alternatives, including fiber and microwave.

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5G IAB Technology Gains Momentum for Maritime Applications


In March 2024, following successful initial trials in the United Kingdom, Inmarsat Maritime signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Aramco to further expand 5G Integrated Access and Backhaul (IAB) technology trials to the Arabian Gulf, an area that will test the solution’s effectiveness in delivering high-bandwidth connectivity to offshore vessels in spite of difficult weather conditions such as extreme heat, sandstorms, wind, and water evaporation.

If successful, 5G IAB technology can help Aramco modernize its offshore processes, supporting advanced use cases such as intelligent safety monitoring, remote operations, and/or Virtual Reality (VR)/Augmented Reality (AR) assistance. With the use of a mesh 5G network, both companies expect the solution to expand the reach of connectivity far beyond the existing ranges of approximately 1 Kilometer (km).

5G IAB to Plug the Gaps Left by Fiber and Microwave


IAB uses access spectrum in order to backhaul mobile data traffic to the core network. While IAB itself is not a new concept—for example, in January 2021, China Unicom deployed Huawei’s RuralStar Pro, which used IAB technology to deliver Long Term Evolution (LTE) services to a rural village located in a mountainous area—adoption of the technology was largely muted, as it required sharing spectrum with access radio services, thus limiting network performance.

However, the introduction of Millimeter Wave (mmWave) for 5G is creating new momentum for IAB, as the high-capacity bandwidths and beamforming features of 5G could lower the extent of IAB interference between access and backhaul links, which may cause half-duplexing. IAB also has higher equipment cost efficiencies, as both access and backhaul would share the same radio hardware unit and have similar operation/maintenance systems. Additionally, IAB can help lower equipment costs, as cell sites do not require separate transmitter-antennas for backhaul links.

5G IAB is a strong alternative to fiber and microwave, particularly out at sea where it is cost-inhibitive to lay fiber cables and where extreme weather conditions make it difficult to deploy microwave links. In terms of costs, it is also a suitable replacement for satellite connectivity for vessels operating near the shore, given the relatively higher costs of satellite-based communications.

What's Next for 5G IAB?


Although 5G IAB is still commonly viewed as a niche market offering that serves specific use cases that cannot be addressed with fiber or microwave deployments, there is an increasing need for Communication Service Providers (CSPs) to consider how they can leverage this technology, given: 1) increasing demand for high data-throughput connectivity; 2) denser site deployments to support 5G and beyond technologies; and 3) increasing amount of spectrum being identified for International Mobile Telecommunication (IMT) services.

In light of the above, ABI Research recommends that CSPs consider the following:

  • Leverage 5G IAB to Augment and/or Enhance Existing Services: 5G IAB could be used to create mesh networks, which can help augment and/or enhance existing services. For example, Inmarsat Maritime’s mobile 5G IAB solution can be offered in tandem with its satellite connectivity solutions. Verana Networks was also noted to be collaborating with Verizon to trial its 5G IAB technology on its mmWave spectrum to provide high-bandwidth connectivity for traffic hotspots.
  • Uncover New Use Cases for IAB: Through the creation of 5G mesh networks and a combination of backhaul technologies, there is also an opportunity to explore how this can be used to deliver high-bandwidth connectivity to remote communities and support use cases such as Fixed Wireless Access (FWA).

In summary, 5G IAB is expected to play an increasingly important role in supporting high-capacity mesh networks with lower capital costs, thus positioning itself as a key technology to support the future of networks.


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