Space: a new frontier for 5G

30 August 2018 |

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New satellite services will be essential to the success of 5G, if operators of the new mobile generation are to achieve complete coverage. Gareth Willmer talks to the space people

hile much of the industry is focused on the rollout of 5G mobile networks, there is an opportunity for satellite providers – if they want to ensure that space plays a key part in the next generation of mobile. From satellite operators’ perspective, there are key features that they believe will make their services more integral in new models.

Talk is of 5G offering up to 1,000 times the capacity and much higher connection density than today’s 4G networks. But that will need hundreds of thousands of small cells on lamp posts and other street furniture in cities and suburban areas.

Supplying all that looks a Herculean task – but may provide a big opportunity for satellite providers to step in to help. They say they have a key part to play because mobile operators by themselves will be unable to do everything everywhere.

As the market becomes more oriented towards globetrotting internet-of-things (IoT) services, connected vehicles and mission-critical devices that need to work everywhere, there could be further opportunities for satellite operators.

Ammar Khan, a principal engineer at Inmarsat, says there is a realisation that 5G for the society of the future "needs to be delivered holistically across the globe – not just in cities". To construct something of the magnitude that terrestrial operators anticipate is going to be a "huge infrastructure cost".

So satellite operators such as Inmarsat can come to the aid of mobile carriers to fill in coverage gaps, believes Khan. He offers an example of using technology to track a potentially mission-critical asset. "If you look at the journey of an asset, it goes from a factory into urban areas, then rural areas, then into a ship, to a dock, on to a plane. All of that is about providing a multimodal service," he says.

Khan says there is, nonetheless, a challenge to get the satellite and mobile industry working together for 5G, with stronger cooperation needed through industry bodies.

One problem with previous generations of technology – such as 3G – he says, is satellite and mobile operators each had their own bespoke services, with competitive tension putting up a barrier to working together to break down today’s digital divide.

They also need to cooperate to find better ways to integrate their interfaces, he adds. "The digital divide is going to be worse than with 3G if we don’t work together," he adds.

But although this cooperation will be a gradual process and won’t happen overnight, the ball is rolling in terms of engaging operators, says Khan. There is collaboration through industry bodies, but Inmarsat is also striking deals with carriers on types of services that 5G might propel.

These include one deal to provide satellite connectivity for Vodafone’s IoT platform, and another with Deutsche Telekom that led to the construction of the European Aviation Network (EAN), an integrated S-band satellite and LTE service for passenger aircraft.

This demonstrates how the two industries can work together to deliver specific services, indicating ways to collaborate and building confidence in cooperating on services for the 5G future, says Khan.

Deutsche Telekom is confident that the EAN can be effectively extended to the 5G era, an upgrade that is being evaluated. "We are in a strong and unique position to leverage the existing network by introducing 5G technology and even further increase the performance of our EAN solution," says David Fox, Deutsche Telekom’s VP of in-flight services and connectivity.

The company says it is also open to exploiting other potential synergies with satellite in future. "5G is neutral to access technology and has various options to use different parts of the spectrum," says Antje Williams, executive programme manager for 5G at Deutsche Telekom. "It is in our common interest to provide customers the benefits of 5G networks."

Another carrier, Telenor, believes satellites will play a key role in certain circumstances, such as connecting 5G to ships and providing connectivity for rapid response vehicles. "Satellite technology is essential in situations where you need connectivity and do not have other infrastructure to provide this," says Patrick Waldemar, vice president of Telenor Research. Telenor has just been selected as coordinator for the 5G Verticals Innovation Infrastructure (5G-VINNI) project, a Europe-wide industry initiative to accelerate 5G uptake that comprises 23 partners, including telecoms operators, vendors and satellite providers. This includes Telenor’s own satellite division and SES Techcom, part of Luxembourg satellite operator SES.

"We certainly welcome collaboration like the one in 5G-VINNI between SES and Telenor Satellite," says Waldemar.

Getting involved

SES itself, which will work on this project with operators to help develop end-to-end 5G capabilities in a range of areas, is actively seeking to get involved in the 5G market through a multi-pronged approach.

Eric Watko, SES Networks’ EVP for product, marketing and strategy, explains that this goes hand in hand with the company’s transition from being a capacity provider to offering full-on managed services to terrestrial network operators, in which it handles the procurement, operation and maintenance of the network from the cell site to the packet core.

Taking this sort of approach "drives you to be much more proactive with some of these standards and capabilities", says Watko. "Then you’re positioned to take advantage of those new capabilities and new services." SES is thus making sure it is fully involved in industry bodies, such as MEF, 5G-PPP and Sat5G, so it can play a key part in the 5G conversation for the future.

The impulse for SES’s transition came partly from the capabilities it brought in after its 2016 eal for 100% of previously part-owned O3b Networks, an operator of medium-Earth-orbit (MEO) satellites, says Watko: "We incorporated that mentality, service delivery model and capability."

Another provider, Intelsat, is also eager to be integrated into the 5G ecosystem, believing this is something essential for fulfilling the technology’s potential.

"Moving from 2G to 3G, and from 3G to 4G, these have been steps," says Jean-Philippe Gillet, vice president and general manager of broadband at Intelsat. "The way we see 5G, it’s going to be not just one additional step, but a major transformation of the way we are looking at connecting people [and] connecting objects, and the way we are going to distribute content."

There is a need to remove some of the complexity of satellite, says Gillet. "It’s really about being part of the standard. If you look at the way 3G was developed, it is really not satellite-friendly," he says.

Gearing up towards this, Intelsat has put building blocks in place such as IntelsatOne Mobile Reach Solar 3G/4G, an end-to-end managed service for mobile operators to help them expand their networks into low-revenue regions. The company has also sought to take a proactive approach to the use of C-band spectrum in the US, by proposing a solution along with SES and Eutelsat for satellite companies and mobile operators to work together.

There is still, however, a need to overcome the traditional image of satellite as a high-cost industry – something that providers say has changed. The economics have altered, with fresh competition in the market created by fleets of satellites in lower orbits, cheaper devices and high-throughput satellites.

Changing economics

The cost of satellite networking has come down dramatically over recent years, says Vinay Patel, senior director, international, at Hughes Network Systems. This is aided by the buildout of high-throughput satellites (HTSs) and networking systems, with capacities typically at several hundred gigabits a second.

"These employ spot beams that can be targeted to specific areas, delivering very high-capacity density, much like cellular architectures. This yields positive economics," says Patel.

Intelsat agrees that HTSs have dramatically reduced the cost per bit. In addition, says the company’s Gillet, advances in technology have made it considerably easier to access HTS capacity on the move through smaller, easier-to-install and more powerful antennas – ideal for services such as connected cars. He points to flat-panel satellite antennas that can be embedded in the roofs of vehicles.

There has also been major publicity for the new wave of satellite providers emerging with a specific focus on bridging the digital divide – such as OneWeb, which plans to start launching its satellites from the end of 2018. Vikas Grover, CIO at OneWeb, says cost reductions are being achieved through advances in microprocessors and solar panels, in the design of satellite technologies, reducing the size so many can be launched at once, and in manufacturing at scale using efficient design techniques.

"Without space, and without OneWeb, 5G cannot be fully integrated into business and society the way it is currently imagined," he says. "OneWeb’s low-Earth-orbit satellite constellation will be the only network capable of providing high-speed, low-latency internet access everywhere on the planet and extending existing networks into areas beyond the reach of terrestrial infrastructure. This makes us pivotal to the success of 5G, but also to the idea of convergence between terrestrial and space networks."

Patel at Hughes adds that "satellite has a critical role to play in the communications infrastructure, especially when it comes to connecting the unconnected". In the next few years, we will see just how much the 5G industry looks up towards the stars for inspiration.