For over 50 years, satellites have been instrumental in the telecommunications industry, despite mostly being used by government and major communication entities. With satellite uses roles becoming increasingly broad in recent years, the economics of these crafts are evolving. Manufacturing and operational costs are being lowered due to trends like miniaturization, along with companies like Space X, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and other private sector entities investing and delivering satellites into orbit. When you consider how important space-based network infrastructure has become, it’s prompted some industry experts to speculate how big of a role satellites will play in deploying and maintaining 5G connectivity.

The telecommunication operation known as the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), described in one of their publications how the roles and upsides of satellites in 5G were examined, which led to the specific requirement for supporting satellite access being captured in TS22.261—“Service requirements for next generation new services and markets: Stage 1.” What this notion does is recognize the supplemental value satellite coverage brings to the array of access technologies for 5G, namely for mission-critical and industrial applications where ubiquitous coverage is paramount.

The 3GPP publication points out four broad cause cases satellites can bring to 5G, which include:

  • Support for delivering service in “unserved” or “undeserved” areas.
  • Enabling network availability to moving platforms (passenger vehicles, aircraft ships, trains, buses, etc.).
  • Addressing one of three primary use causes for 5G-critical communications for “future railway/maritime/aeronautical communications.”
  • Help scale 5G network deployments through providing efficient multicast/broadcast resources for data delivery towards the network edges (or directly to user equipment).

Large investments from conglomerates across the world like Softbank (Japan) and OneWeb (United States) have prompted plans to launch 10 satellites in 2018, with the aim of testing WiFi, 2G, 3G, and LTE service delivery to Earth-based user terminals. These notions have also caught the attention of highly touted board members for other major corporate entities like Executive Chairman Paul Jacobs (Qualcomm), Founder Richard Branson (Virgin Group), CEO Thomas Enders (Airbus), and Founder/Chairman Sunnil Mittal (Bharti Enterprises). According to Greg Wyler (Founder of OneWeb), the concept (at scale) could conceivable enable global and vehicular communications for public safety, low-latency connectivity for flying aircraft, rural coverage mobile carriers can use to bolster network availability, along with pinpointing access to schools, healthcare, and other public institutions.

The Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems (ARTES) program, which is run by the European Space Agency (ESA), believes 5G will represent more than just the next generation of terrestrial mobile service, but will also form what they describe as “a convergence of fixed and mobile services, introduce a new set of technologies and standards, create a network of networks, and facilitate communications between everyone, everything, and focus on some key vertical markets.” In 2017, ARTES announced (in support of “security, resilience, coverage, mobility, and delivery of broadband”) an initiative to work with satellite ecosystem stakeholders on 5G-related trials for supporting transport, public safety, media, and entertainment services.

Last year also saw Intelsat, a communications satellite services provider, work with chipmaker conglomerate Intel, to urge the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to open the C-band spectrum (3700 MHz to 4200 MHz frequencies) for satellite support of mobile networks. That spectrum space is presently utilized by satellite operators to broadcast television in the United States. In addition, the two companies are aiming to use this space for three primary use cases:

  • Enable MNOs with the aim of attaining expanded spectrum in metropolitan regions
  • Offer responsible satellite operators certainty over their infrastructure investments
  • Improve the broad U.S. economy by setting the stage or rapid commercialization of 5G

With the rollout of 5G connectivity believed to be in our near future, the possibilities on what this quality of connectivity could bring are endless. The role of satellites in unveiling this network is going to be essential, especially in regards to its widespread deployment and distribution.