Cell towers in space: could 5G and satellite fill the connectivity gaps?

The race to deliver space-based communications is on, and the next frontier is bringing satellite connectivity to 5G mobile phones. With many people worldwide still unconnected, could 5G from space fill in those tricky coverage gaps?

According to the latest annual State of Mobile Internet Connectivity Report from the GSMA, 55% of the world’s population is now connected to mobile Internet. That leaves a lot of citizens not connected via mobile devices. As the GSMA puts it, “Lack of Internet access holds them back from playing an active role in an increasingly online world, making them less able to cope with continuing economic and social disruptions.” Of the world’s unconnected, 94% are more likely to live in rural areas. Challenges remain in deploying terrestrial wireless network infrastructure to remote and isolated places, so could the answer come from the stars?

Elon Musk’s Starlink and Jeff Bezos’ Project Kuiper have each invested over $10 billion in satellite connectivity. Starlink is operational and already being used by the public, with more than 1,000 satellites deployed in low earth orbit (LEO). The satellite industry is in good health. Musk’s SpaceX has announced plans to launch LEO satellites that will connect directly to T-Mobile cellphones, making the satellites effectively base stations in space. It’s an ambitious plan but may take time to become a reality and will require SpaceX to launch its Gen2 satellites. And even then, the connections might only be capable of powering messaging services.

Earlier this year, Apple announced something similar with Globalstar, which has become more concrete: from November 2022, North American iPhone users will be able to send emergency messages via Globalstar satellites outside terrestrial network coverage. There’s a need for it: the U.S. still has 500,000 square miles of territory without cellular coverage. Another satellite player is getting in on the act, with Lynk Global detailing plans to launch a 5G base station into space in December 2022, a move it described as a world first. Lynk Global says it has patented the ability to connect to existing standard 5G devices using space-based infrastructure in 55 countries.

What is satellite 5G and why does it matter?

Satellite 5G is enabled by LEO satellites that orbit the earth at an altitude of 300 to 1,200 miles. The satellites connect to ground stations and promise to bring fast, reliable connectivity and high data rates to places that typically struggle to get online: passengers on board airplanes, ships or other vehicles, or those hard-to-connect remote and rural communities and businesses. It’s an exciting development, as LEO satellite technology, with its smaller, lighter and cheaper equipment to build, launch and operate, could make non-terrestrial networks (NTN) a mainstream reality.

What could it enable?

To begin with, satellite-enabled 5G will probably find its most common use cases connecting remote sites and equipment. As well as providing rural 5G coverage and filling in gaps in network coverage, 5G can play a significant role in enabling IoT coverage with low-cost connectivity and, also, low data rate services for long battery life.

Satellite-enabled 5G for IoT can also enable easier management of remote assets, which could be a valuable use case for energy, gas and oil, and mining operations. These industries will become increasingly data-driven, and 5G and satellite connectivity can give natural resources companies better access to real-time data and enable new applications like more autonomous operations. According to ABI Research, by 2026, nearly 20 million IoT connections will be made via satellite.

In addition to IoT possibilities, satellite-enabled 5G connectivity could benefit Massive Machine-Type Communications (mMTC) use cases in which large numbers of devices intermittently transmit small amounts of traffic. Smart cities would be a potential application here, as cities are increasingly home to millions of IoT-connected sensors and devices. All that data will have a big impact on the network and will all need to be backhauled. Satellite-enabled 5G could be used to backhaul data from non-latency sensitive devices. And last but not least, there is voice: research by Juniper predicts that there will be 2.5 billion 5G voice users by 2026, and satellite may have a big role in powering that.

LEO services have already begun

OneWeb is already offering LEO satellite connectivity in regions worldwide, with latencies of less than 70 milliseconds and downloads of 150 Mbps. OneWeb is targeting the remote connectivity application space with larger individual user terminals around the size of a pizza box. Earlier this year, OneWeb announced a project to deliver high-speed, low-latency connectivity to the global commercial shipping industry, aiming to connect the first vessels from early 2023. It raises the prospect of enabling real-time video and cloud syncing as standard, and even on deep-sea vessels. Satellite 5G could power emerging use cases like these.

As more direct-to-mobile satellite operations are launched, more use cases will emerge. In years to come, it’s possible we’ll be using direct-to-mobile 5G or even 6G to provide emergency backup connectivity for disasters when terrestrial networks fail or circumvent authoritarian countries’ restrictions on connectivity. Not to mention that so much of the earth is simply rural or remote geographically: oceans and seas, mountains, deserts and more. People and businesses in these locations typically lack access to fiber or affordable, high-speed connectivity. 5G from space might be the development that helps to connect the rest of the world’s unconnected and power new enterprise use cases that were previously unachievable.

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Steve Harris

I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.