Off to space we go, as Ericsson, Qualcomm and Thales to test 5G from orbit

Erik Ekudden Ericsson.jpg

Mobile telecoms is going full circle with not one, but two projects to use satellites to deliver services direct to handsets.

Three vendors – telecoms equipment maker Ericsson, French aerospace company Thales and chip specialist Qualcomm – have announced they are working on 5G connectivity via low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites.

This is in parallel with work by one company, AST SpaceMobile, along with Orange, Rakuten Mobile, Vodafone and possibly others to test satellite transmission to Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ghana, Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

Unlike AST SpaceMobile, the three new partners have not announced any involvement with mobile operators.

Ericsson CTO Erik Ekudden (pictured) said: “This testing and validation cooperation between Ericsson, Thales and Qualcomm Technologies will be a major milestone in the history of communications as the ultimate result could effectively mean that no matter where you are on Earth – in the middle of an ocean or the remotest forest – high-end, secure and cost-effective connectivity will be available through collaborative 5G satellite and terrestrial connectivity.”

The three have, of course, introduced a new three-letter abbreviation for their ideas: NTN, for non-terrestrial networks.

Their goal is to use what they call “an emulated space environment” in France to “validate various technology components needed to enable 5G non-terrestrial networks, including a 5G smartphone, satellite payload and 5G network pieces on the ground”.

3GPP, the mobile standards body, has already decided – in 2021, with releases 17 and 18 – to provide for NTNs, in a move that envisages support for services including public safety and non-public networks.

In particular, release 17 will support “massive” internet-of-things (IoT) services, said Ericsson last year, using high-altitude platforms – balloons or powered aircraft – and both LEO and geosynchronous satellites.

Philippe Keryer, executive VP for strategy, research and technology at Thales, called this “a game changer, not only in terms of business opportunities but also in the skills required to connect and protect billions of people and things”.

He said the research collaboration “will demonstrate the belief of our companies that 5G non-terrestrial networks will contribute to this revolution and will take network resiliency and security to the next level”.

Much work is needed, though. Ericsson said it plans to verify a 5G virtual radio access network (vRAN) stack, “modified to handle radio signals propagating … via the fast-moving LEO satellites”. In other words, “What happens to 5G radio waves travelling through the vacuum of space and the Earth’s atmosphere?”

LEO satellites typically take up to two hours to orbit the Earth, which means they are travelling at up to 20,000km/h. That is roughly equivalent to 5km/s – a small fraction of the speed of radio waves, 300,000km/s, but enough to cause a Doppler-effect frequency shift in the signal from the satellite and from a handset.

That will require new techniques to enable handsets and satellites to remain locked on to a channel.

The companies said the work “also aims to validate that 5G NTN can be supported in a smartphone form factor, allowing tomorrow’s 5G smartphone to effectively become a satellite-phone”. Qualcomm plans to provide test phones for the trial in order to check that 5G NTNs can be accessed by future 5G smartphones.

The two new projects – AST SpaceMobile’s and today’s announcement – follow 25 years after Motorola planned to deliver telecoms from satellites to mobile handsets. That scheme led to Iridium, much troubled in its first few years but now refinanced, separate from Motorola, and with a completely new set of satellites.