5G industry news

Satellites, a 5G enabler

  • 7 minute read
  • Published by Lucy Woods on 27 Nov 2018
  • Last modified 27 Nov 2018
Earlier this year, the DCMS published a news piece ‘market predictions on the role of satellite communications in 5G and beyond’

Demand was highlighted: The need for ubiquitous coverage for many of the proposed 5G use cases – in particular the Connected Car – has necessitated a plan to include other connectivity solutions such as WiFi and satellite communications in future hybrid networks, in order to ensure that there will be no holes in the 5G coverage map.  

To better understand the role of 5G in satellite communications, we reached out to the following industry experts for comment: 

Geoff Varrall, Director at RTT Online and reputed author in the field of 5G and satellite spectrum standards 

The underlying theme is that opex and capex costs in terrestrial 5G are increasing over time - a function of network densification, satellite costs are reducing, a function of lower launch costs, manufacturing innovation and new constellation investment. Many of the vertical use cases in 5G require geographic rather than demographic coverage- automotive is one example where seamless outdoor connectivity is needed. This is more or less impossible to achieve from a terrestrial network. 

Chris Ward, Head of Space R&D UK Space Systems at Airbus reasons why business should consider satellite communications for 5G enablement 

Use of satellite communications for 5G enablement will deliver an integrated network that provides 100% geographic coverage, greater resilience and access to a future-proof network at lower costs.

In particular Space enabled 5G Networks:- 

  • Have greater network capacity – Will enable mobility not only in the next generation of connected vehicles, but on planes, trains and ships across all borders. The capacity of satellites will be over a factor of 100 times greater than twenty years ago due to much larger capacity GEO satellites used alongside large constellations of LEO and MEO satellites. 
  • Are Cost-effective – An integrated space component with a large user-base can greatly reduce the overall total cost of delivery particularly as the cost of information from telecommunication satellites in space will soon have dropped by a factor of 100 compared with twenty years ago 
  • Resilient by nature – not only would satellite communications improves resilience through diversification, it is more difficult to disrupt space-based communication than that based purely terrestrial 
  • Green – telecommunication satellites rely on solar to provide the power necessary, and can greatly reduce terrestrial infrastructure deployment and power requirements over wide areas - alleviating the impact on the environment through civil works and delivering a substantially improved carbon footprint.

Therefore businesses that require high availability, super-fast, reliable resilient networks like transport, public safety, security and critical industries would benefit significantly from 5G delivered over satellite. 

Best use cases are for where it is economically non-viable, impracticable or impossible for fibre and other RAN's to be installed on land, sea and air. This could apply to businesses in a range of market sectors including Transport (Land, Marine & Aeronautical), Agriculture, Health, Emergency and Security Services amongst others. For both businesses and consumers the ubiquity of coverage should ensure no internet or wifi cut-outs when travelling between cities or countries by land, sea or air. This then enables businesses to improve productivity whilst improving the quality of experience for consumers. It is likely use cases exploiting ubiquitous coverage will appear in the future that do not currently exist.

You are unlikely to use satellites for emergency stopping of autonomous vehicles, or inside buildings, tunnels and caves. For dense urban areas fibre with terrestrial RAN's will likely remain as the most appropriate connectivity mechanism. However satellites can be used to compliment and support these networks in some cases such as backhaul of dense communications traffic from one region or country to another. 

Benefits of satellite Vs fibre? 
We are truly talking about satellite and terrestrial technologies working in tandem rather than in competition. The amount of data to be delivered globally is extremely huge and still growing rapidly. Hence this creates a demand to get the best out of all the delivery mechanisms in the most efficient manner. So, this will need a converged approach so that all terrestrial and satellite delivery mechanisms are used appropriately to meet this demand. 

What challenges lie ahead? 
I would suggest three main challenges: 

  1. Positioning the UK as a fast mover in the convergence of satellite and terrestrial technology. This is needed to deliver the expectations placed on the UK government in terms of communications content delivery as well as percentage population and geographical coverage. Applicable both from a UK productivity perspective as well as meeting civilian coverage expectations. This requires government, industry and academic cooperation to be started, developed and established quickly. This cooperation will need to cut across the largely separate terrestrial and space sectors, including their associated value and supply chains as they are today.
  2. Establishing both small scale and large scale test bed and trials programmes for converged space-terrestrial 5G communications, by employing the aforementioned cross cutting communities. This will be essential in order to develop the hardware and software technologies and trial them in the UK with real end user communities. By large scale this means creating trials which span multiple cities and counties in the UK. This approach would be the most rapid and economic way of developing an infrastructure that works, and that can be scaled up for implementation across the UK as a whole as well as for export. The work undertaken must be driven by the needs of end user communities.
  3. We need to extend reach more globally as a converged space-terrestrial architecture can only be fully achieved on a global scale. This means engaging with other countries and authorities to influence and ensure formulation of global common standards. These global standards are currently being evolved, and the use of space will form part of them. 

What trials are being explored already? 
We are exploring several potential trials which feature converged terrestrial and space connectivity working together following an extensive use case study performed. For example, exploring engaged mobility in regard to the growing social trend towards vehicle access rather than ownership. Cars are becoming mobile computers with software representing over 50% of product value. Vendors are focused on developing a new generation of intelligent vehicles that will constantly receive software updates and generate data relating to performance, road conditions and passengers. Space and Terrestrial converged connectivity infrastructure could become an exchange platform for services to the vehicle, acting as a hub for the growing multiplicity of service providers.

This enables in-car application updates, optimising vehicle performance, and providing a constant stream of information and entertainment services. All this will need ubiquitous and volume connectivity between vehicles, highway agencies, manufacturers, and service providers. 
Another example we are exploring is smart farming. Rapid improvement in farming productivity is needed alongside innovation needs with respect to crop yield, environmental impact, live-stock wellbeing, and supply chain efficiency (farm to fork). 

Converged connectivity holds the answer to support the placement of many IoT low power sensors located in rural areas where farming takes place. Satellites will extend 5G coverage to local farms as well as distribution vehicles. This could help yield a revolution in the agricultural sector by streamlining both production and distribution. 
Alex Holvoet, SVP Program Management, LeoSat Enterprises comments on the continous research into 5G trials - “through the “Satellite for 5G Initiative”, ESA and the European space industry are joining forces to develop and showcase the added value that satellite brings in the context of 5G. They will collaborate on 5G service trials using satellite, with a focus on those vertical sectors for which 5G will be highly relevant, such as transport, media & entertainment, and public safety. While focusing on these markets, there are activities in the areas of application development, standardization, resource management, interoperability and other supporting technologies” 

If you’d like to provide us with feedback on the above or contribute to a future 5G blog, please email hello@uk5g.co.uk